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Will 'top secret' Clinton emails impact Iowa caucus results?

FILE - In this Oct. 18, 2011, file photo, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton checks her Blackberry from a desk inside a C-17 military plane upon her departure from Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, bound for Tripoli, Libya. The Obama administration is confirming, Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, for the first time that Hillary Clinton's unsecured home server contained some closely guarded secrets, including material requiring one of the highest levels of classification. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP, File)

To say the revelation from the State Department that 22 of Hillary Clinton's emails from her term as secretary of state contained top secret information is not good news for her presidential campaign is probably an understatement, but experts and Republican strategists doubt it will be a significant roadblock in her path to the Democratic nomination.

The State Department announced Friday that 37 pages of emails from the private server Clinton used to conduct her government business include information so sensitive that they cannot even be released in redacted form. This is the first official confirmation from the Obama administration that Clinton's emails did contain top secret material, which letters from the intelligence community inspector general had alleged.

18 emails between Clinton and President Barack Obama are also not being released "to protect the president's ability to receive unvarnished advice and counsel." State Department spokesman John Kirby said those emails have not been determined to be classified.

More than 1,300 other emails released so far have been partially redacted due to classified information, but the State Department and Clinton's campaign have claimed that material was retroactively classified.

Kirby told the Associated Press that questions about whether the "top secret" emails were or should have been classified at the time they were sent are being investigated separately by the State Department.

Clinton has maintained that no information was marked classified when it was received, but the latest news raises questions about whether her actions endangered national security. Her decision to use the private server has haunted her campaign since it was revealed last spring, and this may undercut the defense for her actions that she has offered.

"I can't imagine it helps, but I think it's difficult to say just how much it hurts," said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball newsletter.

Republicans and independents may be furious about this news, but Democrats have largely been unmoved by the email scandal in general. With the Iowa caucus three days away, Skelley expects this will have little impact on the outcome.

If opponent Bernie Sanders defeats Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, though, the email issue could help drag the nomination race out further.

"It's having a slow corrosive effect partly on her image but also partly on the enthusiasm that her supporters have," said John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University.

"This has got to be disheartening to them that there's just this drip, drip, drip of news that reinforces one of her biggest weaknesses in this campaign, which is that people don't find her trustworthy," he said.

If she wins the nomination, it will certainly be an issue that her Republican opponent raises in the general election, but its effect on her in the Democratic primaries is blunted in part by the fact that Sanders has generally refused to attack her over it.

"I'm not so sure it really affects her in the primary because it doesn't seem that Bernie Sanders is going to go after her," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

Sanders said at the first Democrat debate that he was tired of hearing about Clinton's emails. Although he has recently become more direct in confronting her over issues like her Wall Street speaking fees, he still rarely touches the questions raised by her email practices.

"The Sanders campaign should be talking about it," said Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus, but there is no indication at this point that they will start.

If Sanders tops Clinton in both of the first two voting states and he sees a legitimate chance of winning the nomination, though, Skelley and O'Connell suggested Sanders may rethink his approach.

"If Sanders is really in it to win it, you have to use what attacks are available to you," Skelley said. Democrats dismiss Republican criticisms of Clinton as partisanship, but they may be more likely to listen if Sanders targets her over it.

"Sanders sort of hamstrung himself when in that first debate he sort of took the emails off the table, but I think there are ways of getting around that," Carroll said. Sanders could talk about the "uncertainty" or "complications" surrounding Clinton and voters will likely understand what he means.

"I think he can do this indirectly in a way that could be effective for him."

Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon dismissed the latest news on Twitter, saying this is a case of "over-classification run amok" and calling for the documents to be released.

"I'm not sure what else they can say," Skelley said. That response will probably be sufficient for Democratic voters, which is what Clinton is focused on at the moment, but she may need a better answer for the general election.

"You can run attack ads all day long with this information," O'Connell said, adding that the Clinton campaign's handling of the scandal indicates she has "been playing legal hopscotch from the beginning."

"It's clear even if you're a Clinton fan that she's been fudging the truth," he said.

"The new e-mail release is a disaster for Hillary Clinton," Republican front-runner Donald Trump tweeted Friday. "At a minimum, how can someone with such bad judgement be our next president?"

A Republican opponent could use this information to strike against one of Clinton's strengths, which is her foreign policy experience, if her response is that she did not know the material in question was classified.

"She hangs her hat on her experience and years of service. How did she not know?" O'Connell said.

"It's hard for Clinton to play the victim here very effectively," Carroll said. "She created this mess by doing what the Clintons so often do, which is trying to end-run the rules."

The State Department had been ordered to make all of Clinton's work-related emails public by the end of January, but the government revealed in court filings that thousands of documents will be delayed at least until February while they are reviewed for classified material by various agencies.

"The State Department admits the mistakes were discovered three weeks ago, but fails to explain why the lost records weren't sent to these agencies the very next day, and how, some still haven't received the records," said Ryan James, attorney for reporter Jason Leopold whose Freedom of Information request led to the order to release the documents, in a statement to Sinclair. "It's astounding, and shows little regard for the democratic principal that people are entitled to information about their government before they are asked to decide who should run it, not after."

Clinton has claimed she wants to see all of the emails made public, and experts agree she would benefit from getting them out sooner rather than later.

"It's this cloud that's hanging over her that has intermittent downpours so that every time she explains one set of emails away, another one comes along and she's trying to explain that one away," Carroll said.

The challenge for Clinton is not only a political one. The Justice Department is investigating the handling of classified information because of her email setup, and Republicans have argued Clinton herself should be indicted.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a press briefing earlier Friday that "based on what we know from the Department of Justice, it does not seem to be headed in that direction."

Jacobus found that statement "extremely disturbing" in light of the news that 22 emails contained top secret information, suggesting that the administration may be withholding the emails to protect Clinton

"Nobody should be shutting the door to an indictment," she said.

Short of such an indictment, though, Skelley said Clinton remains the most likely Democratic nominee. It will only become a bigger problem after that, and it is one her campaign continues to struggle with.

"This is a nightmare that keeps on occurring to her," Carroll said, "and it's surprising that they still haven't found an effective way to defuse this whole issue."

909 more emails were released by the State Department on Friday night, bring the total number of documents made public to more than 26,000.

Previous batches of documents have not contained much surprising information, but they have revived questions about her record as secretary of state, her handling of the Benghazi attacks in 2012, and her attitude toward classified information.

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