Will Hillary Clinton's scandal playbook save her this time?

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton responding to bad news and scandals by adopting classic feints from her family's political playbook.
  • She is not losing focus on the main prize by keeping a beady eye on the Republicans she could face in November 2016.

Washington (CNN)The bad news just keeps rolling in thick and fast for Hillary Clinton.

Deepening intrigue over her personal email server and alarm-bell polls showing rival Bernie Sanders threatening her happy hunting ground in New Hampshire are complicating what once looked likely to be a serene coast to the Democratic nomination.
She's responding by adopting classic feints from her family's political playbook -- finally ceding ground in an investigative standoff with authorities on her emails, but simultaneously picking new fights with Republicans she brands as extreme and out of touch.
    Early this week, her campaign pounced on GOP candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush with a pre-emptive strike on his assault on the former secretary of state over Iraq; she called out Bush rival Florida Sen. Marco Rubio by name on abortion rights; and she mocked real estate mogul Donald Trump's surprise Republican campaign spurt as mere entertainment.
    Putting a policy foundation under her presidential bid, she's also rolling out meaty programs -- outlining a $350 billion effort to tackle student debt, promising a wind- and solar-powered fight against climate change and taking populist positions on the economy, including warning last month of serious risks in the "shadow banking system" of hedge funds and high-frequency traders.
    Clinton's actions are a clear, implicit statement that despite a Sanders surge, a run of bad headlines and headaches over her private email server that won't go away, she remains the prohibitive Democratic frontrunner. She is not losing focus on the main prize by keeping a beady eye on the Republicans she could face in November 2016.
    Clinton may also be mindful of a need to fire up her supporters with anti-GOP rhetoric given that Sanders is attracting huge, enthusiastic crowds at his rallies.

    Perpetual political war with the GOP

    But her approach is also a reminder of the Clintons' ingrained habit of plowing on regardless when self-imposed crises strike, compartmentalizing controversy as just the latest blip in their perpetual political warfare with the GOP. Time and again, the Clintons have tried to redirect the focus from their own political woes back to the fundamental issues of an election or era -- and their longevity in the Washington game is testimony to the fact that the tactic often works.
    Even so, the last few days are hardly good news for Clinton.
    The row over the personal email server she used as secretary of state -- which the GOP is using to cast new doubt on her character and ethics -- now looks certain to haunt her election campaign for months, and could even endure beyond 2016.
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    In the latest developments Tuesday, aides said Clinton had directed them to turn over her server and a thumb drive that held email sent from the account.
    Intelligence Community Inspector General Charles McCullough, meanwhile, said that at least five emails from the server contained classified information, raising the political heat.
    It is a federal offense for someone to "knowingly" store classified information at an "unauthorized" location, raising a real -- if so far distant possibility -- that Clinton could find herself at some point in genuine legal jeopardy.
    FBI officials have also been keen to get a look at the server, likely not as part of an investigation targeting Clinton, but to test whether it was hacked and foreign intelligence services or others stole classified information.
    Clinton has repeatedly said that she did not send or receive email that was classified at the time from the account, but she had refused to hand over the server to the Justice Department. Her campaign has said Clinton is prepared to answer any questions about the server while stressing that there is no criminal probe against her.

    Clinton campaign reaches out to supporters

    It was concerned enough, however, to put out an email Wednesday telling supporters they may hear "news" over the next few days on the former secretary of state's email account and rebutted what it said were erroneous claims about the situation.
    "There's a lot of misinformation, so bear with us; the truth matters on this," Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri wrote.
    Nathan Sales, a Syracuse University law professor, said that it was not clear how much legal difficulty Clinton could find herself in, but that her situation worsened with the inspector general's remarks.
    "It is not a smoking gun -- but it is a bombshell," said Sales.
    Investigations into whether Clinton got official approval for her home server from senior State Department officials could later exonerate her or complicate her legal position, he said.
    But perhaps the most worrying development for Clinton is that, as the wheels of justice tend to grind slowly in Washington, the issue, which has dogged her campaign right from the beginning, is not soon going away.
    "This could drag on for the rest of the 2016 campaign cycle -- maybe into 2017 or 2018. This is not the sort of investigation in which we could have clear and definitive answers overnight," said Sales.
    The handover of the server, which Clinton said has been wiped of personal emails (distinct from work-related correspondence) that she did not already hand over to the State Department, means she is making a long-resisted concession and relinquishing significant control over a situation that could evolve in unpredictable ways.
    And the uncertainty and unflattering headlines certainly add up to a prolonged political problem for Clinton.
    For starters, it will add fuel to the congressional committee investigating the deaths in Benghazi, Libya, of four Americans on her watch on September 11, 2012, about which she is due to testify in the fall.
    "I get that they (Clinton's team) are frustrated. I get that they are disappointed that her polling numbers are almost as low as Congress' -- but they need to look no further than her," said Trey Gowdy, the GOP congressman heading the inquiry into Benghazi on CNN's "Wolf."
    A new poll on Wednesday found that a majority of Americans believe Clinton's emails should be subject to a criminal investigation.
    The survey by Monmouth University found that, not surprisingly, attitudes on the issue split along partisan lines, with 82% of Republicans and only 23% of Democrats believing that such a probe was justified.
    It was not the only damaging polling news for Clinton Wednesday, as for the first time a survey showed her behind a challenger in an early-voting state -- a self-declared socialist from Vermont, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

    Sanders surges in poll

    Sanders polled 44% -- Clinton was at 37% -- among likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters, according to a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll.
    Clinton won the New Hampshire primary in her unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nod against President Barack Obama in 2008 after she lost the Iowa caucuses -- and the state famously made her husband the "Comeback Kid" during his scandal-tainted 1992 campaign.
    But given that it neighbors Sanders' home patch in Vermont and part of the state shares a media market with the liberal bastion, New Hampshire is perhaps the most likely place for Clinton's challenger to give her a run for her money.
    The state's electorate is made up almost exclusively of white voters and it contains many aging progressives. That tracks closely with the Sanders electoral coalition and those who turn out to his mammoth rallies, while more diverse states are less likely to favor him.
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    "It's the first poll that we have seen like this. Whether or not there is a trend still remains to be seen," said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.
    Levesque said that while Sanders has clearly been on the rise in New Hampshire, it could be that the state's pragmatic voters were merely flirting with the challenger to Clinton -- who is so well known she is almost regarded as an incumbent.
    "People will say: Can this person beat the Republican? As you get closer to that primary voting day, people weigh that more heavily than they may earlier on," Levesque said.
    Another poll released Wednesday, by CNN and ORC, showed Clinton in better shape in Iowa, another early-voting state, leading Sanders by 50% to 31%.
    There is no conclusive evidence, meanwhile, that Sanders could emerge as a serious threat to Clinton in more diverse, populous nominating states.
    "People like and resonate with a candidate (like Sanders), but in the end they weigh whether the candidate can go all the way," Levesque said.
    "She can see the long game because he has been through it before."