As the first Democratic debate approaches, Hillary Clinton has lost control of her narrative.

The email malignancy has metastasized into the worst possible diagnosis, one that will flare up repeatedly for many months to come. There are now so many inquiries and so many questions that it’s virtually impossible for Hillary to get off the defensive, no matter how many late-night shows she does.

But the former first lady has also lost control of the policy debate. She has dragged her feet on two major issues—Keystone pipeline and Pacific trade deal—only to wind up siding with Bernie Sanders. So instead of getting credit for taking a stand, she is portrayed by the press as indecisive and calculating.

And to top it off, she has no clue whether Joe Biden is going to totally upend the race.

Forfeiting control of the story line is a huge setback for a candidate. It’s hard to score points when you’re constantly seen as responding to investigators or rivals or media detractors. And the private server represents the classic self-inflicted wound. What would this campaign look like if Hillary had used State Department email like everyone else?

All the headlines out of Hillary’s “Today” show town hall had to do with Savannah Guthrie telling her how bad it looked and asking how she could both apologize for her decision and blame Republicans for a partisan witch hunt.

Clinton got one gift during this whole period, Kevin McCarthy’s ham-handed praise for the House Benghazi committee knocking down her poll numbers. But the drip-drip-drip has continued since then.

The FBI seized four computer servers at State as part of its probe. That’s pretty remarkable when you stop to think about it.

The AP reported that China, South Korea and Germany were all involved in attempts to hack Hillary’s private email. Although the wire service did bury this sentence: “It was not immediately clear whether the attempted intrusions into Clinton's server were serious espionage threats or the sort of nuisance attacks that hit computer servers the world over.”

A Senate panel found internal emails at the company handling Hillary’s server, Platte River Networks, expressing concern about the way the former secretary’s State Department team was telling them to manage her backup data.

“Starting to think this whole thing really is covering up some shaddy [sic] s***,” the person wrote.

"I just think if we have it in writing that they told us to cut the backups, and that we can go public with our statement saying we have backups since day one, then we were told to trim to 30days, it would make us look a WHOLE LOT better.”

Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon fired back at the GOP senator who released that information, saying: “Ron Johnson is ripping a page from the House Benghazi Committee’s playbook and mounting his own, taxpayer-funded sham of an investigation with the sole purpose of attacking Hillary Clinton politically… The Justice Department’s independent review is led by nonpolitical, career professionals, and Ron Johnson has no business interfering with it for his own partisan ends.”

The fact that thousands of deleted emails were backed up raises the possibility that they could be recovered by investigators—yet another route over which she’s lost  control. And if some of those deleted messages are shown not to involve personal matters, as Clinton has claimed, that would create new credibility problems.

This is the problem when you’ve got the feds and Congress on your tail: Even if nothing is ultimately proven, the scandal machinery could chew her up during the primaries. And the loss of control extends to her upcoming testimony before the House Benghazi panel.

For months, Clinton and her allies said the email flap was no big deal, until the candidate finally admitted she had made a mistake and needed to address it. But it is hard for liberals to defend her on this turf. Which leads me to a truly remarkable attempt by the left-leaning site Vox:

“From her adventures in cattle trading to chairing a policymaking committee in her husband's White House to running for Senate in a state she'd never lived in to her effort to use superdelegates to overturn 2008 primary results to her email servers, Clinton is clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas.‎

“This is normally portrayed as a political weakness of hers, and in many ways it is…

“But it's also an enormous source of potential strength. Committed Democrats and liberal-leaning interest groups are facing a reality in which any policy gains they achieve are going to come through the profligate use of executive authority, and Clinton is almost uniquely suited to deliver the goods. More than almost anyone else around, she knows where the levers of power lie, and she is comfortable pulling them, procedural niceties be damned.”

Um, how do you put that in a 30-second ad? Hillary: She’s just shady enough that as president she’ll get away with stuff.

That’s hardly the story line that Clinton wants. Her challenge now is to devise a more compelling way of changing the narrative.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.