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By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Virginia voters on Tuesday will choose the Republican and Democratic nominees for governor in an election seen as a gauge of the U.S. electorate's mood about President Donald Trump ahead of next year's midterm races.
The primary winners will face off in November in what will one of the first statewide general elections since Trump, a Republican, won last year. New Jersey is the only other state electing a governor this year.
"Virginia will be more hotly contested than ever," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington.
"All the national money and national attention will be coming this way," he said. "Republicans want to claim that the Trump movement is doing well, and the Democrats want to claim it is not."
Most of the focus has been on the Democratic candidates seeking to succeed Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe, who cannot run again because of term limits.
A Hampton University poll last week showed former congressman Tom Perriello slightly leading Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam.
Northam has tried to stoke Democrats' anger toward Trump, calling him a "narcissistic maniac" in a statewide ad.
He is backed by every statewide Democratic officeholder, while Perriello drew the support of Democratic progressives including U.S. senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
The two candidates share positions on most issues, with both saying they will maintain abortion rights and backing more than doubling the minimum wage to $15 a hour.
In the three-way Republican race, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie has a double-digit lead in the Hampton University poll over Corey Stewart, a Prince William County official, and state Senator Frank Wagner.
Gillespie is endorsed by a raft of state and national Republican leaders. On the campaign trail, he has largely avoided talking about Trump, who has not weighed in on the race.
Republicans' strength has eroded in recent Virginia elections, with Democrats now holding all statewide offices. Virginia, once a Republican bulwark in presidential polls, has gone Democratic in three straight elections.
The Hampton University poll showed that half of likely primary voters disapproved of Trump's job performance, while 43 percent approved.
Polls open at 6 a.m EDT (1000 GMT) and close at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT).
Voters also will choose candidates for the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. A spate of Democrats are running, hoping to start clawing back some of the nearly 1,000 legislative seats lost nationwide under Democratic President Barack Obama.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Grant McCool)