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Sanders tops Clinton in Iowa poll amid doubts about her campaign strategy

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton reacts to a cheering crowd during a 'Women for Hillary' grassroots organizing meeting, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

A new poll presented more bad news for Hillary Clinton Thursday as concerns continued to swirl about her email practices as secretary of state and political observers questioned the wisdom of a reported shift in her campaign strategy.

Clinton is now in a statistical dead heat with Bernie Sanders in Iowa, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday. Sanders has the support of 41% of likely Democratic caucus-goers, Clinton is the choice of 40%, and Vice President Joe Biden, who has still not announced that he is running, gets 12%.

Other recent polls still put Clinton ahead of Sanders in Iowa, but with her lead shrinking.

A previous Quinnipiac poll in July gave Clinton a 19-point lead over Sanders in the state. Combined with several polls now placing Sanders ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire, a real possibility has arisen that the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination could lose the first two contests of the 2016 primary season.

Clinton also continues to be dogged by questions about her use of a private email server while secretary of state--a decision that she apologized for earlier this week--and a New York Times report that her campaign hoped to turn things around by planning to be more spontaneous has been met with skepticism and some mockery.

The effort to show more "humor and heart," as the Times put it, was on display in Clinton's appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" that aired Thursday, joking with a 5-year-old presidential expert and dancing with DeGeneres.

Clinton also appeared at a "Women for Hillary" event in Ohio Thursday, telling supporters, "If calling for equal play for equal work is playing the gender card, deal me in. I am ready to play."

Still, with Sanders drawing thousands to his rallies, Clinton may be suffering from an enthusiasm gap.

The spectacle of a former aide being brought before a House committee Thursday and asserting his constitutional right not to incriminate himself instead of answering questions about setting up her private email server is also not helpful.

"These are very bad optics for her," said Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus.

However, experts and analysts caution that Clinton's campaign is not unraveling and she remains the most likely candidate to become the party's nominee in the eyes of many.

"I really think we need to be cautious about looking at polls at this point," said Jeanne Zaino, a political analyst and professor at Iona College. The Iowa caucus is nearly five months away.

The fact that Clinton's numbers are going in the wrong direction in the state suggests a failure by her campaign to learn lessons from her loss there in 2008, though.

"This is no way to start a campaign," Zaino said, but that is why Clinton is working to secure her lead in other early voting states. She remains strong in southern states in particular.

"Polls go up, polls go down. In the end, this isn't going to mean much," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, though he acknowledged, "it's kind of a tough slog right now."

"This has to feel like Groundhog Day for Hillary Clinton and the people who have been the most loyal and with her the longest time," said Craig Varoga, a Democratic strategist. "An opponent, almost out of nowhere, is again surging against her."

As Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, observed, it is only September and millions of dollars will be spent on ads between now and the caucus.

"To some degree, the question I guess is, is there a floor for Clinton," Skelley said.

"She probably can't slide too much further," he said, unless the campaign completely collapses or the email probe finds criminal activity.

Biden might be inclined to wait and see if that happens before deciding on his run, but given deadlines to get on the ballots in some primaries and the need to shore up donors who are not already committed to Clinton, he may not be able to wait much longer.

Clinton's apology for using a private email server on ABC News Tuesday may have put to rest calls by the media for her to say she is sorry, but it is unlikely to blunt the issue for voters or Republicans.

"I should have used two accounts, one for personal, one for work related emails. That was a mistake, I'm sorry about that," Clinton told ABC's David Muir after refusing to apologize in previous interviews.

"It wasn't much of an apology, and what it was was too little too late," Jacobus said.

Skelley said an apology can be effective for a politician if voters view it as genuine, but whether they accept Clinton's and whether it changes any minds about her trustworthiness remains to be seen.

"We already know so much about her that even when she goes and apologizes for the email thing, how many people truly are like, oh, that shifts my opinion?"

Clinton may try to put these questions behind her now, but Skelley pointed out that the monthly release of batches of her emails is scheduled to continue through January and will bring the issue up again and again.

"She may be damaged and scarred by this whole email scandal thing," Skelley said, but that alone will not doom her candidacy, especially if all the documents are made public before the February 1 Iowa caucus, as currently scheduled.

"There is the potential that all this might be over with, you might say, before the elections."

Skelley also predicted that the media's attention will shift to the horse race between the candidates once votes start getting cast, so there could be fewer stories about the emails next year.

Manley was a bit more optimistic that the apology will at least help Clinton with primary voters.

"It's not going to stop Republicans from continuing to make this an issue, but I think it will help with some Democrats that are uneasy with the idea that the email issue isn't going away soon," he said.

While scrutiny from reporters over Clinton's email use will likely continue, Republican strategist Jacobus also expressed doubt that Clinton's plan to show "humor and heart" will succeed.

"You can't undo a personality," she said. "She is who she is and that's not going to change."

Clinton may be suffering from comparisons to her husband, who was a very effective campaigner when running for president in the 1990s.

"A lot of Hillary Clinton's political good will from the establishment Democrats," Jacobus said, "was because of her husband, who was spontaneous and funny and came off as a real person...I think what's happening is the fact that she's Hillary Clinton instead of Bill Clinton is catching up with her."

Zaino agreed that the plan to "bring spontaneity" to the campaign, as the New York Times reported, is flawed.

"It plays into that narrative of how scripted she is," she said. Instead, she suggested Clinton should focus on her strength and experience.

"I don't think you try to rebrand her. I think you look for what it is people like and respect about her."

"She's not Bill Clinton, she's not Donald Trump...she's not a comedian," Zaino said, and acting like she is would be a mistake.

According to Varoga, playing up her strengths is particularly important if Trump, who remains far ahead of the rest of the field in his race, becomes the Republican nominee.

"She'd be better off with grit and determination, and showing that she's the one with the experience and toughness to take on Donald Trump, than with some kind of ill-defined effort at heart and humor, whatever that means," he said.

Manley, who was press secretary for the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee when Clinton was a member, said Clinton really does have a warmer side and she could benefit from proving that to voters.

"She can be very warm, very funny, very generous to staff," said Manley.

"There's no denying that sometimes she has trouble showing that in public," he added.

While some voters have drifted away from Clinton, she is still viewed favorably by 76% of likely Democratic caucus-goers, nearly the same as Sanders, according to the Quinnipiac poll. Only 64% say she is honest and trustworthy, but she tops Sanders and Biden when it comes to leadership qualities and temperament to handle an international crisis.

"There is something else going on among primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that's unrelated to the email server, since her approval numbers remain quite healthy among Democrats," Varoga said.

The problem, according to Varoga, is that it is better to be loved than liked in primaries and caucuses, and many who love Sanders only view Clinton as acceptable.

"She and her campaign will never panic, and that's good, but they also need to work and fight for this, and break a sweat, and prove to voters and opinion leaders that she's hungry and has fire in the belly," he said.

Skelley noted that, in the long run, Democrats will rally around their nominee, and if it is Clinton, most Sanders and Biden supporters will still choose her over the Republican.

"Democrats come home to the party's likely candidate in the general election," he said.

When it comes to rebuilding her favorability, Clinton faces a unique challenge because of her nearly 25 years on the national political stage. She is seen as a polarizing figure by many and some voters formed opinions of her long ago that may be difficult to change.

The fact that her favorability and trustworthiness have fallen in several polls suggests those views may not be so firmly cemented, Skelley said, but Clinton is unlikely to be able to drastically change opinions of her.

The same was said about Republican front-runner Donald Trump earlier this summer when voters seemed unwilling to even consider supporting him, though, and multiple polls show that he has reversed his numbers with many Republicans.

"The Trump example would suggest at least it might be possible, but then again he wasn't quite the political animal that Clinton has been," Skelley said.

"I wouldn't say it's too late because voters can change their minds pretty quickly," Jacobus said, but "if Hillary Clinton had the ability to rebrand herself, she would have done it by now."

An unexpectedly competitive Democratic primary process could prove to be beneficial for Clinton if she wins the nomination.

Manley said he has long believed Clinton needed to "sharpen her political chops" before facing the Republicans in the general election, since she may have been rusty after her years as secretary of state.

"She needs to make sure she's at the top of her game," Zaino said, and debating strong opponents and dealing with her baggage now will make her a better candidate then.

If Clinton can overcome these challenges, it will display a resilience that a successful candidate needs.

"The world is dangerous, it's not Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and voters - regardless of party - want a president who is tough and decisive," Varoga said.

None of Clinton's current troubles represent a seismic shift in the race for the Democratic nomination as the experts see it, though. Sanders has proven a greater threat than anyone expected and Biden remains a wild card, but Clinton's campaign is not in free fall.

"We still view Clinton as the favorite," Skelley said, but recent polls, the email scandal, and the potential entry of Biden into the race have raised a question: "how much of a favorite is she, really?"

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