After a summer spent in the fire, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is hoping for some relief this fall.
The former secretary of state’s campaign has already begun a course correction to both better address the controversy over Clinton's private email server and shore up her position in the race.
In September, they hope to begin to bend the trajectory of the campaign with new policy rollouts and more media appearances. October, meanwhile, promises to be a blockbuster month featuring two critically important events that could set the course for the rest of the campaign: the first Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13 and Clinton’s testimony before Congress on emails.
The damage of the summer is clear in a new NBC News/Marist poll, which finds Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has moved ahead of Clinton by 9 points in the key presidential state of New Hampshire. That’s a drastic change from July, when Clinton was beating Sanders by 10 points.
In Iowa, Clinton still outpaces Sanders, but her lead has fallen from 24 points in July to 11 points now. And Biden finds support with one in five caucus goers at 20%.
“I think the secretary’s people are getting very nervous about the kind of enthusiasm and energy our campaign is bringing forth,” Sanders told reporters in Des Moines Saturday.
Meanwhile, support for Vice President Joe Biden has grown to 16% in New Hampshire and 20% in Iowa, even without him entering the race. The super PAC trying to draft Biden in the 2016 race said the poll showed the “deep desire among Democratic primary voters” for Biden’s entry and hope it could help convince him to enter the race.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to Clinton on her second presidential bid, whose strength had all but frozen out Democratic rivals months ago. "I’ve always thought this was going to be a competitive primary and I welcome that,” Clinton insisted Saturday in New Hampshire.
Aides have long discounted public polls, and note the NBC/Marist poll had Mitt Romney beating Barack Obama at this point in the 2012 cycle.
They say they’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the email controversy, which has dogged her campaign and led more Americans to distrust Clinton. But the tunnel is long and there are several major potential cave-ins along the way, from Biden’s entry into the race to an unforeseen escalation in the email probe.
For now, to address the emails, Clinton has begun to change her tone. The first sign came in Iowa 10 days ago when Clinton stopped dismissing and making jokes about her personal email server by saying she should not have done it.
In an interview with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell Friday, Clinton said she's "sorry" for the controversy over her private email server, though pointedly refused to apologize for the decision to use the server. “I take responsibility and it wasn’t the best choice,” she said.
Indeed, voters will start to see a lot more of Clinton, with an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show Tuesday, a speech on Iran in Washington Wednesday, and likely another media appearance on ABC at the end of the week.
But more than anything else, Clinton’s campaign is counting on her October testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi to change the email story. They’re expecting Republicans to overstep and expose the investigation as the partisan witch hunt her allies believe it to be.
Even if all that goes according to plan, the story will linger until at least January, when the state department will release the final batch of her emails.
Meanwhile, to address her place in the Democratic primary, her surrogates have quietly stepped up their attacks on Sanders in recent weeks. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested Sanders was unqualified, Rep. Joaquin Castro said Sanders has ignored Latinos and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy said Sanders is too conservative on gun control.
Clinton continues to refuse to mention Sanders’ name, but she is more willing to draw subtle contrasts with her rival. When Mitchell asked about Sanders, Clinton said presidential candidates need to do more than “wave your arms and give a speech.”
On the stump, Clinton has added another veiled jab: “Other candidates may be out fighting for a particular ideology, but I am fighting for you.” And she’s made gun control a central piece of her stump speech, in part to draw a contrast with Sanders’ softer record on the issue.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said Thursday that Biden would “shake up the dynamic,” so her campaign has made a show of force in recent weeks, racking up top-tier Democratic endorsements. The message: There’s no room for another establishment candidate.
And Clinton’s campaign says she will spend September focusing on issues of importance to women, a key Democratic voting bloc who could bolster Clinton against her all-male challengers Sanders or potentially Biden.
While Sanders has consolidated the support of the progressive wing of the Democratic party -- no small feat -- Clinton allies don’t believe he can compete beyond the first two or four states.
Even if the senator won the New Hampshire primary, three weeks later he would face the gauntlet of Super Tuesday, which includes 17 states, many of which are in the South or have large minority populations, where he tends to under-perform.
With her superior resources, Clinton has already being laying groundwork in these places. On Friday for instance, Clinton visited Puerto Rico, which has double the number of delegates as New Hampshire to Democratic National Convention.
Still, the fact that Clinton allies are openly discussing the possibility of losing New Hampshire or Iowa or both speaks to how far Clinton has come since the beginning of the summer.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Rep. Julian Castro has stepped up attacks on Bernie Sanders. It is Rep. Joaquin Castro who has.