DES MOINES -- It's pretty clear things have changed in the Democratic presidential race when Hillary Clinton does a sky-is-falling routine for donors.
"There are not one, but two new public polls out this week that have us down in Iowa," Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook wrote in an email to small contributors Thursday. "Now, you should always take public polling with a grain of salt. But if you thought this race wasn't going to be close, well, it is. This isn't me claiming the sky is falling -- these are just the facts."
Of the six polls taken most recently here in Iowa, Sanders leads in the two Mook mentioned -- by Quinnipiac and ARG -- while Clinton has progressively smaller leads in the others. Back in December, Clinton's margins over challenger Bernie Sanders in the polls were 18 points, or 14 points, or 22 points. Today, they're two or three points.
The bottom line is that in Iowa, Clinton's lead over Sanders is within the margin of error, and in New Hampshire, she trails Sanders by several points. Which leads to a question: Could Clinton's entire theory of the race be wrong?
The theory is this: Of course Clinton wants to win Iowa and New Hampshire, but if she doesn't, she will still win the nomination because the race will move on to South Carolina and other states with a significant black population. African-Americans are a critical part of the Democratic coalition, and Clinton is undeniably strong with them. So in the long run, she will win.
It's a persuasive theory; Sanders has tried and failed to make any real inroads into Clinton's black support. But now there's the question: If Sanders were to vanquish Clinton in the first two contests of the campaign, would that change the dynamics of the race?
"It does change the dynamics of the race," Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs told me by phone from a campaign event at Dartmouth College. "If you do well in Iowa and notch a victory in New Hampshire, you're going to see more and more people take Bernie's campaign seriously, and that will change the dynamics."
But how specifically? The theory -- the hope -- is that the work Sanders has done trying to connect with black Democrats will start to pay off if Sanders comes out of the early states a winner. (Notice Briggs said "do well" in Iowa, not "win.") Sanders has always conceded that as a senator from a nearly all-white state, he doesn't have deep roots in African-American politics. But he's tried hard to reach out, stressing not just his record but civil rights work that goes back to student days.
I suggested to Briggs that all that reaching out hasn't paid off, since black Democrats still seem strongly behind Clinton. "It's not that it hasn't worked," Briggs answered. "People didn't know about it." If Sanders wins early contests, the theory goes, later-state Democratic voters, black and white, will take a look at him. And that's where, again theoretically, the dynamic changes.
Truth be told, that still seems unlikely to happen. But it seems less unlikely than it did a few weeks ago, which explains Clinton's increasing attacks on Sanders. It also explains the emergence of Chelsea Clinton, who is pretty much universally admired by Democrats, as one of the attackers. Chelsea's hit on Sanders' health proposal -- that it would somehow enable Republicans' efforts to repeal Obamacare -- struck a lot of Democrats as not just out of character, but flat wrong, as well.
Still, as a sign of Clinton anxiety, it was pretty accurate. "I think they're panicking," Briggs said of the Clinton campaign.
Things are moving fast; Iowa Democrats are choosing quickly. In The Des Moines Register poll, 70 percent of Hillary supporters, and 69 percent of Sanders supporters, say they've made up their minds. Just a month ago, those numbers were quite a bit smaller. More minds will be made up each day.
"Voters will caucus in Iowa in 18 days, and the Sanders campaign is outspending us on TV," Mook wrote in that alarmed email to small donors. "Hillary's been fighting for families for decades -- if you're with her, this is the time to show it." Mook then asked the recipient to "Chip in $1 now."
It's not surprising to see a campaign send out a poor-little-old-me appeal, asking for donations to fight a big, bad opponent. But for Hillary Clinton, the unstoppable, inevitable, Democratic nominee-in-waiting, to say that about Bernie Sanders? Now, that's a change.