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ALEXANDRIA: A bruising governor's election in the US state of Virginia looked set to go down to the wire Tuesday with the Republican candidate's lead narrowing in a race seen as an early verdict on President Joe Biden's first year in office.

Newcomer Glenn Youngkin and veteran Democrat Terry McAuliffe both voiced confidence as they addressed supporters in the neck-and-neck tussle resonating nationwide as a proxy war between Biden and former president Donald Trump.

With 94 percent of the expected vote counted, Youngkin's early double-digit lead was down to just three points -- a margin expected to narrow further as more northern counties near strongly Democratic Washington report results.

"The fight continues," McAuliffe told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Richmond, adding that "every single Virginian deserves to have their vote counted."

A harbinger of the parties' prospects in next year's midterm elections, the race was initially expected to be a comfortable Democratic win but instead became a toss-up in the closing days of the campaign.

A private equity multi-millionaire who has never run for office defeating a former popular Democratic governor would spell disaster for Biden going into the all-important 2022 races that will determine who controls Congress.

"Folks, this stopped being a campaign a long time ago and it started being a movement led by all of you," Youngkin, who has poured at least $20 million of his own fortune into the race, said to cheering fans as initial results came in.

If he wins, Youngkin's campaign will likely become a blueprint for Republicans across the country as they strategize on how to handle the specter of Trump in the midterms.

Difficult year

The Democratic faithful badly wanted the race to be a referendum on Trump but in reality he has had little to do with the campaign and was never likely to prove the galvanizing nemesis they had hoped for.

Early in the campaign, Youngkin accepted Trump's endorsement and has steered clear of criticizing the twice-impeached former president.

But he has also pointedly avoided standing next to the Republican leader, who is seen as toxic among independents in much of Virginia, or presenting himself as a Trump acolyte.

A McAuliffe loss would almost certainly spook moderates on Capitol Hill and drive some away from supporting Biden's stalled $3 trillion vision for remaking the economy.

The long delays on passing promised social welfare and infrastructure packages are an echo of 2009-10, when the Democrats suffered big losses amid gridlock in Washington.

A win, however, could embolden them to speed things up in Congress.

Elections were also being held in multiple other states, with voters overwhelmingly backing Democrat Eric Adams for mayor of New York and Democratic New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy just behind in a surprisingly close reelection battle he was nevertheless expected win.

Culture war

As he tries to mount a return to an office he held four years ago, McAuliffe has faced significant headwinds, with the majority party in Washington usually incurring losses during a president's first term.

Youngkin has been performing his own high-wire act, as the vast majority of Republicans believe Trump's false claims that the presidency was stolen in a fraudulent election, making acknowledging the truth politically risky.

He has instead turned the conversation to local "culture war" issues like abortion, mask mandates and the teaching of America's racial history.

McAuliffe took an early lead in the race but his seven-point cushion evaporated in the final days, with a polling average by political analysis website FiveThirtyEight showing Youngkin ahead by one point on election day.

Leaning into his image as the establishment candidate, the 64-year-old McAuliffe sold himself as a former incumbent who brought back jobs after the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, and pledged to repeat the trick for the pandemic.

"I really hope that we can get a lead on the Democratic side but I do think it's going to be a tight vote," Kaela Rose-Murdock told AFP as she cast her ballot in Falls Church, part of the Washington metropolitan area.

"I see a lot of support for Youngkin around, and that's very concerning for me -- especially in northern Virginia."

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