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LIST: 5 obstacles that could stop a Clinton nomination; Emails, Benghazi and Biden

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during the King Day at the Dome event celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

Amid new reports of classified information contained in Hillary Clinton's emails and troubling new poll numbers, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination is now facing a far tougher fight than she may have expected.

While these latest developments may not completely shake up the race, they are just a couple of reasons why some feel, as rival Bernie Sanders said at a rally on Monday, "that inevitable candidate ain't so inevitable today."


These are five political obstacles that could still keep Clinton from becoming the Democratic nominee:

1. Matters of Trust

Strategists and political scientists agree that Clinton's email practices are still not a potent issue in the primaries, but polls continue to show that even many Democrats do not consider Clinton trustworthy. The email questions could damage her indirectly by reinforcing that narrative.

"The email stories have not so far and will probably continue to have very little effect among Democratic primary voters, who have seen those stories as generated by the Republican attack machine," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga.

"This additional piece of information is probably not a game-changer," said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government at American University of the latest reports. However, she added that the longer the scandal is in the public eye, the more voters may reflect on the decades of other scandals surrounding the Clintons.

"It's not going to change anything because it's part of her profile...She figured that the rules could bend for her," said Arnie Arnesen, a liberal radio host based in New Hampshire. "That's part of the problem for everyone in Washington."

John Carroll, an assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University, said Clinton's defense that emails were not marked as classified when she received them may not be good enough.

"The American public is not all that great about understanding the fine print of things," he said, "and in the broad strokes here, this is just more and more evidence that Clinton, number one, operates outside the rules and number two, falls back on technicalities to defend what she's done."

Republican strategist Tom Basile said the email issue is unlikely to derail her campaign at this point.

"The [primary] process has been so well manipulated in her favor that, barring her being prosecuted, it is still very likely that she will get the Democratic nomination," he said.

2. Déjà Vu

Clinton's 2008 campaign never recovered from her unexpected loss to Barack Obama in the Iowa caucus. Following her defeat, minority voters in South Carolina reassessed her candidacy and many threw their support behind Obama instead.

The latest polls in Iowa and New Hampshire suggest Clinton could face similar losses in 2016, potentially puncturing her argument that she is the most electable Democrat and causing a similar reconsideration in the states that follow.

A CNN/WMUR poll released Tuesday shows Sanders leading Clinton by 27 points in New Hampshire. The race is much tighter in Iowa, but Sanders is ahead in some polls there as well.

"Sanders' polling numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire should be a concern," Varoga said, "since his candidacy is gaining momentum at the perfect time for him and, now, he represents a bigger threat than anyone ever expected."

Arnesen pointed to two significant numbers in the CNN/WMUR poll that could be troubling for Clinton. Sanders has a 91% approval rating in New Hampshire and he is beating Clinton by 14 points among women there, according to the poll.

If Sanders does win the two contests, Arnesen said it will raise questions about Clinton. It may not drive black and Hispanic voters in South Carolina to vote for Sanders, but it will make them curious enough to take another look at him.

"I'm not convinced that she's going to lose Iowa or New Hampshire at this point," Lawless said, noting that Obama had a substantial lead in late polls in New Hampshire in 2008 but Clinton still beat him there. If Sanders does win, it may make him a more credible candidate, but Clinton still has a substantial advantage in larger states.

"It will be a black eye on the campaign for her" if Clinton loses the early states, Basile said, but it may be more of a protest vote over the lack of options in the Democratic race than genuine support for Sanders as an alternative.

If Clinton cannot win either state, Carroll said, "I think it's going to send the establishment Democrats into some kind of serious fire drill."

3. Sanders Attacks

In Sunday's debate and in recent public appearances, Sanders has sharpened his attacks on Clinton, directly targeting her relationship with big banks. In the final days before the Iowa caucus, he could go on the offensive further.

"You can sort of tell he's always reluctant to do that," Arnesen said. Republicans are doing much of the work of pointing out Clinton's negatives for him anyway.

Sanders could also risk charges of sexism if he strikes Clinton too hard, as her opponent in the 2000 New York Senate race learned.

"I think he's got to be careful," Carroll said. "I don't think he's come anywhere near a Rick Lazio moment in terms of overplaying his hand."

Carroll also noted that Sanders has ruled out some lines of attack, including the email issue and sexual allegations against Bill Clinton.

"He did to some degree hamstring himself when in an earlier debate he dismissed the emails." However, Carroll added that Sanders could bring the emails up again in light of the latest news and say the issue is more serious now.

"What's working for him is that he's focused on the issues and not on her," Arnesen said. "Why would be change?"

4. Benghazi

Michael Bay's Benghazi film, "13 Hours," has proven to be a box office disappointment, but it has revived questions about Clinton's handling of the attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi in 2012 and of the U.S. intervention in Libya in general.

Some of the contractors who defended the U.S. personnel in Benghazi and saved lives during the assault there have questioned the official narrative about the incident in interviews this week.

The issue may remain in the spotlight throughout the campaign as the House Select Committee on Benghazi completes its work and produces its final report on the attacks.

Anti-Clinton Super PACs have been running ads blasting her over Benghazi, accusing her of lying about it, and blaming her for the American deaths. Ted Cruz plugged the movie in his closing statement at last week's Republican debate, and several candidates have targeted Clinton over the issue.

In addition to challenging her credibility and trustworthiness, traits that voters already view her negatively on, Republicans have also questioned her judgment in supporting U.S. involvement in Libya.

Sanders has criticized Clinton over her push for "regime change" in Libya and tied it to her overall approach to foreign policy. Like the email issue, though, it may be more of a general election problem than a concern during the primaries.

5. The Biden Factor

Following the latest email news Tuesday, Donald Trump suggested that Vice President Joe Biden should reconsider his decision to stay out of the race. Though Democrats are unlikely to take any advice from the Republican front-runner, Biden could still be a factor in the race and he has indicated that he wants to be.

"I regret it every day, but it was the right decision for my family and for me. And I plan on staying deeply involved," Biden said earlier this month of his choice.

He also generated controversy recently when he praised Sanders for fighting against income inequality throughout his career while Clinton only picked up the issue more recently.

"I'm sure some of his strongest advocates are having sideliner's remorse, but that might be more about human nature than political reality," Varoga said.

Biden could continue to interject himself into the debate between Clinton and Sanders--"while I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent," he warned in October--and sway some voters if he chooses.

"Joe Biden as a color commentator on the primary process can have a reasonably significant effect on how people view Clinton and how solid her support remains," Carroll said.

If Biden did want to enter the race, he probably still could, although it would likely be too late to garner enough delegates to secure the nomination, according to Carroll.

"What he can do is put the whole nomination process into limbo and he can drive it to the convention where all kinds of unpredictable things can happen, even someone other than Biden getting serious consideration."

According to Basile, Biden's comment that he regrets not running represents doubt within the Democratic establishment about Clinton. Basile expects will still win the nomination, though.

"That is an implicit way of saying that she's a disaster and they're worried...They stacked the deck in her favor, so she's it and they'll have to deal with it."

Lawless cautioned that pundits may be focused too much on figuring out the mistakes Clinton has made under the assumption that she will repeat her 2008 failure, when no votes have actually been cast yet and Clinton is still the most likely Democratic nominee.

"Any general conclusion that she might have botched this again is very, very premature," she said.

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