"We have no real conflict in appealing to the base of our party and the center of the electorate," said Geoff Garin, McAuliffe's pollster. "Cuccinelli is emblematic of the Republican dilemma. It is impossible to do both of those things at the same time."
Though Republicans remain optimistic publicly about Cuccinelli's prospects, the second-guessing has already begun. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now a Virginia resident, said Cuccinelli appears to have been too badly outspent by a finely tuned Clinton-backed machine to overcome his own flaws as a candidate.
"If he does lose, it may say more about the candidate than the movement," Gingrich said Monday in an interview for the ABC News/Yahoo! News "Power Players" series. "No one survives a 25-to-1 disadvantage in funding [down the stretch]. And this is the first great victory of the Clinton march back to the presidency."
"If McAuliffe wins the governorship, he is a Hillary Clinton total devotee," Gingrich continued. "He will spend half of his time as governor trying to help her to win the presidency. And I think it is a sign of the power of the Clinton machine."
In New Jersey, meanwhile, Christie is building a machine of his own. A party that's seen its identity defined by tea party firebrands Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul counts among its stars a tough-talking Northeasterner who's proving he can win broadly in a blue state, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
"Chris Christie has defined himself around this theme -- that he's the person that's different from the national party, the person who's distancing himself from extreme views," Zelizer said. "The message he wants is that his brand of Republican politics is nationally potent."
That won't necessarily convince a conservative base that sees Christie as a social moderate who criticized tea party leaders over the government shutdown -- and that remembers Christie's embrace of President Obama's leadership after Hurricane Sandy, Zelizer said.
"A lot of conservative Republicans will say, 'We won't care. Ted Cruz is our guy,'" he said.
In a sense, the election in Virginia is demonstrating one of Christie's biggest obstacles moving forward. Cuccinelli captured the Republican nomination at a party convention dominated by conservative activists, as opposed to through a traditional primary that would draw a broader swath of voters.
"Virginia Republicans made this far harder than this needed to be," said Ayres, the Republican pollster.
After John McCain fell short of the presidency in 2008 and Mitt Romney followed with a loss in 2012, the appetite for moderates is limited among Republican primary voters and caucus-goers.
The path for Christie, should he choose to pursue it, only gets tougher from here. Should he run for president, he will need to at least neutralize a tea party movement that's grown more restive during the second Obama term.
Winning, though, will likely help.
"He has a powerful platform from which to preach," Ayres said.