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Clintons Press Panic Button With Sanders at Their Nevada 'Firewall'

02/13/2016 11:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 14, 2016

An inconclusive Thursday night debate and trouble in the next contest state have led Hillary Clinton to a sharp change in her once dominant presidential campaign. Her media image of inevitability has rapidly diminished, turning her campaign into a war of attrition.

Democrats have chortled for months about former Republican presidential frontrunner Jeb Bush resorting to using his supposedly independent super PAC -- intended for general election action -- to buttress his sagging primary campaign. Now, despite splitting Iowa and New Hampshire, as long anticipated, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is suddenly doing the same thing. In addition, Clinton allies at the Democratic National Committee, jointly running a "Hillary Victory Fund," have done away with President Barack Obama's campaign reform of prohibiting campaign donations from federal lobbyists and special interest political action committees, a move reportedly in the works for awhile but taken in the wake of Sanders's Tuesday triumph, the biggest ever win in a contested New Hampshire Democratic primary.

Of course, all this, while it will benefit Hillary from a resource standpoint, will give Sanders powerful new talking points to use against her, quite possibly further driving his record-setting small donor online fundraising phenomenon.

As I wrote the day after the New Hampshire primary in "You Say You Want A Revolution ...", Sanders was already showing ample signs of threatening to jump the long-planned Clinton firewall in the Nevada caucuses set for February 20th.

Hillary's campaign was suddenly and quite inaccurately spinning Nevada's racially diverse Democratic electorate as more akin to that of overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire. (In reality, Nevada was selected by the party as one of the first four contests because it has a large Latino population.) The Clinton campaign was doing so as Sanders -- who out-raised Hillary in January, $20 million to $15 million -- further fueled by a huge rush of online contributions after his New Hampshire triumph, moved to double his Nevada media buy advantage over the Clintons.

Then a new poll came out, indicating a Nevada dead heat, followed in turn by Hillary increasing her Nevada media buy to try to achieve parity on the airwaves of the Silver State, where she once dominated.

What it all adds up to is a tremendous shift in the dynamics of the race. The longtime Clinton scenario to go 3-1 in the four early contest states of February -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina -- is now in serious danger. That's why the campaign is talking more about South Carolina, where a very large African American vote might suffice in a way that Nevada's smaller Latino vote may not.

Now, Hillary hasn't lost Nevada yet. Pressing the panic button on primary use of of the super PAC (though that's certainly done little for Bush) and getting party insiders to change fundraising rules to enable more special interest money to flow might help stave off defeat.

So might the nature of the Nevada contest itself, which excludes independents who have surged to Sanders thus far.

On the other hand, Nevada has same-day registration, so it's not hard for a pro-Sanders indie to become a pro-Sanders Dem.

Hillary's slump in Nevada raises real questions about the very existence of a Clinton firewall. This is one of three new developments which make the Democratic race look like a contest she is likely to win only through a campaign of attrition.

Thursday night's PBS debate in Milwaukee is the second such development. The encounter proved inconclusive. Where once Sanders seemed overawed to be on the same stage with her, now the socialist senator seems anything but, giving at least as good as he got in repeated jousting with the ex-secretary of state.

The third development, as I noted on Wednesday, is that Sanders is now out-raising Hillary. Usually the only way to win a war of attrition is to have superior resources. Hence the Clinton move on augmenting their funding.

The optics, as the current saying goes, are poor. But the alternative -- generally known as defeat -- is worse.

This race has turned into a fascinating clash between the politics of the 1990s (Clinton) and the politics of the 1970s (Sanders). Which is all the more interesting in that the politics of the '70s ended up incomplete, due to the flukey, oddly apolitical post-Nixon impeachment presidency of Jimmy Carter. Much more to follow on this after the Presidents Day holiday.

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