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A.B. Stoddard: Outlook dims for Hillary

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No doubt Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPoll: Clinton holds 5-point lead over Trump Poll: Voters don't trust media fact-checkers San Diego newspaper endorses Clinton MORE has started the new year “feelin’ the Bern.”

Momentum is building for Bernie SandersBernie SandersClinton's 'superpredators' comment most damaging by either candidate It's Bernie Sanders vs. Gary Johnson for millennial votes States urged to bolster election security MORE in the Democratic presidential race, while Clinton’s once formidable leads over the Vermont senator are rapidly deteriorating, less than three weeks before primary voting begins. 

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To fight back, Clinton deployed her best asset, former President Bill Clinton, to campaign for her, only for GOP front-runner Donald Trump to brand him an “abuser.” 

Then Clinton had her pregnant daughter, Chelsea, attack Sanders for wanting to dismantle virtually every existing healthcare program and strip millions of Americans of their coverage, which isn’t true. Chelsea Clinton was criticized by the media, the Sanders campaign and President Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod, who said “it’s really not an honest attack. And it’s not something that they should have sent her out to do.”

The timing couldn’t be worse. There’s yet more evidence in Clinton’s emails that classified information was mishandled while she was serving as secretary of State, and a report by Fox News states the FBI has expanded its investigation to examine possible “public corruption” resulting from the connection between her work at the Clinton Foundation and her tenure at the department. Combined, the potential legal jeopardy probably makes the prospect of losing the first two primary contests seem like much more fun.

Sanders currently leads comfortably in New Hampshire, which borders his home state of Vermont. Clinton campaign officials say that’s to be expected, because he is well known there. But new polls also show a sharp decline in Clinton’s national lead as well as her lead in Iowa. One poll now even has Sanders ahead in Iowa.

Last week, on the heels of another damaging email revelation — one that Bob Woodward said showed Clinton wanted to “subvert the rules” and reminded him of Watergate — Vice President Biden admitted he regrets not running (against her) “every day.” This week, he characterized Sanders as the
original champion against special interests and income inequality, telling CNN the issue was “relatively new” for Clinton, and that “Hillary’s focus has been other things up to now, and that’s been Bernie’s — no one questions Bernie’s authenticity on those issues.”

Biden “clarified” the following day that he meant Clinton’s recent focus was foreign policy, thanks to her background as secretary of State. Nonetheless, the slight was registered by both camps.

Losses in the first two contests, and what they portend for the general election, would hurt Clinton even if she wins her party’s nomination. While she can take comfort in her solid standing in South Carolina and the other Southern states that follow, where African-American voters are likely to form a firewall against a Sanders surge, it will be other Democratic voters she will need to worry about. Young voters and independents are with Sanders by substantial margins. Because primary voters tune in often just weeks or days before voting, Sanders victories in New Hampshire and Iowa could threaten Clinton’s standing down south even if black voters stuck with her.

Clinton probably finds Sanders even less likely a Democratic nominee than she thought then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was in 2008. She’s even using the same put-down for Sanders that she used for Obama: that “a magic wand” would be required to achieve possibly unrealistic goals. “I wish that we could elect a Democratic president who could wave a magic wand and say ‘We shall do this, and we shall do that.’ That ain’t the real world we’re living in!” she said Tuesday.

With Sanders attracting the passion of the party, and the federal government expanding a criminal investigation into her conduct, Clinton may want to shop for her own magic wand.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.