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Sanders edges ahead of Clinton in Iowa

The race is essentially tied in the state that holds the first-in-the-nation caucus.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has edged ahead of Hillary Clinton for the first time in the key presidential state of Iowa, according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University.

The race is essentially tied in the state that holds the first-in-the-nation caucus, but Sanders has squeaked ahead of Clinton by one point, 41%-40%, according to the poll of Iowa Democrats. And 12% support Vice President Joe Biden, who has yet to decide on a presidential bid. That’s a big change from Quinnipiac’s survey from a just over a month ago, which showed Clinton with a 19-point lead over Sanders. Biden was at 7%.

A recent NBC News/Marist poll showed Sanders winning in New Hampshire by a larger margin.

“Sen. Bernie Sanders has become the Eugene McCarthy of 2016,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “He is the candidate of the Democratic left, against his own party’s bosses and their prized presidential candidate, Secretary Hillary Clinton."

Related: Calls mount for changes to Democratic debate process

Still, Brown noted that Sanders’ momentum may come too early and could dissipate before February, when Iowa and New Hampshire hold the first contests.

And recent polls in the state have shown a confusingly mixed picture. Two surveys of the state this month, from Loras College and Gravis Marketing, found Clinton with large leads over Sanders. The NBC News/Marist poll found Clinton's head had narrowed, but showed Clinton still ahead of Clinton by 11 points. 

Clinton's campaign insists they always expected a tough fight and note that no one has won the Iowa Caucus with more 50% support, except for former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. The campaign now has 78 staffers in Iowa and claims 12,000 people have committed to volunteer for the campaign.

Clinton’s message has been crowded out by constant headlines about the private email server she used for official business as secretary of state, and her numbers have suffered as a result. Iowa Democrats rate both Sanders and Biden with higher favorability numbers than Clinton and higher ratings for honesty and empathy. Clinton earns better marks on leadership and temperament to handle an international crisis, however.

The poll also shows a wide gender gap, with Sanders leading Clinton by 21 points among men, but Clinton beating him by 14 points among women. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has struggled to gain traction, is at 3%.