WASHINGTON – First there was question planting. Then the polls started to take a turn. Then came the rumors of a campaign shake-up. Then came the "cocaine" story.
Hillary Clinton was the Democratic frontrunner even before she announced she was running for president. From the start, the Democratic race has been hers to lose. And if the marbles continue to tumble in front of her, it just might happen.
The one-time inevitable titan of this primary contest has seen her lead and her aura of invincibility slip in recent weeks, as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama makes his move, state-by-state, in the final stretch before the first caucuses and primaries.
Obama has measurably gained in Iowa and New Hampshire, and though he still trails by 9 points in a new FOX News poll out of the Granite State, he is statistically tied in other recent surveys.
"We are the frontrunner, everybody’s been going after us. We feel very good about where we are," Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe told FOX News Wednesday, on the eve of the final debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
But just one day later, Clinton found herself personally apologizing to Obama for comments made by her adviser and New Hampshire co-chairman, Bill Shaheen, who said in published comments that Democrats should be wary of nominating Obama because Republicans would use his admission of past drug use, including cocaine, against him in the general election.
Shaheen resigned Thursday, after the Obama campaign called his comments an act of desperation.
"As soon as I found out that one of my supporters and co-chairs in New Hampshire made a statement ... I made it clear it was not authorized, it was in no way condoned, I didn't know about it and he stepped down," Clinton said Friday in Iowa.
Shaheen's departure follows a pattern. The campaign asked two volunteers to resign earlier this month after they forwarded a hoax e-mail suggesting Obama is a Muslim bent on destroying the United States. The Clinton camp also had to condemn actions by its staffers after it was discovered the campaign planted a question on global warming at an event at Grinnell College in Iowa last month.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that a handful of Clinton campaign workers were even recommending pro-Clinton postings on the New Hampshire progressive blog Blue Hampshire.
The response from the Clinton campaign was the usual: These are the actions of individuals, not the campaign, and they will not be repeated.
Amid the turmoil, Clinton's numbers have been tumbling in both Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Jan. 8.
The trend in New Hampshire is very recent. A new FOX News poll from Dec. 11-13 of 500 likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire showed her with 34 percent, over Obama with 25 percent and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards with 15 percent. The survey, which had a margin of error of 4 points, put Clinton up from a 7-point advantage at the end of November.
But that's down from what was a 20-point lead in early November. Other recent polls show New Hampshire as a statistical dead heat. A new Concord Monitor poll of 400 likely voters, taken Dec. 10-12, showed Obama with 32 percent, Clinton with 31 percent and Edwards with 18 percent in the Granite State. The margin of error was 5 percent.
Obama had already taken the lead in some polls in Iowa.
And while Clinton retains double-digit leads in national polls, she's been forced to pull out the stops to keep losses in the early-voting states from infecting her national standing.
The New York senator announced Thursday the launch of the "Every County Counts Tour." She'll be traveling in a helicopter — called the Hill-A-Copter — to 16 counties in Iowa over five days starting Sunday.The goal is for her and her staff to hit all 99 counties by the end of the blitz.
She also just rolled out a humanizing ad that features her daughter Chelsea and mother Dorothy. The ad shows her laughing and hugging with the family members who tagged along on the campaign trail over the weekend. Their appearances with the candidate came as Oprah Winfrey toured across three early-voting states with Obama.
But rumors of a campaign shake-up started to mount as former President Bill Clinton began to step up his public appearances for his wife and as top Clinton staffers were sent out to Iowa full-time.
Clinton denied this at a press conference in Iowa Friday morning, and she said there's no sign the campaign is in desperation.
"Well, there's no basis to that. You know, I am very grateful to have a family that supports me, that is in my corner, and I had always planned that — you know, I had to get out and make my case to the people of Iowa....
"My husband didn't campaign until the Fourth of July, and then basically, you know, you didn't see him again until Labor Day, and then now he's back, because we're at the end of a campaign."
Meanwhile, at the debate in Iowa Thursday, Obama had a crowd-pleasing moment over Clinton when he was asked how he expects to provide an administration of change when several of his advisers used to work for Bill Clinton.
Hillary Clinton laughed loudly, but Obama turned to her and said: "Well Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."
The audience applauded that one.
But in a race that pits Obama's message of change versus Clinton's message of experience, Clinton on Friday stood by her time-tested credentials and fended off claims she was on a downswing.
"I have no illusions about what this race will entail, and I feel like I am absolutely prepared to take it on," she said. "And I think you can look at what I've done in New York ... I won in 2000 against the very same kinds of polling numbers and commentary, and I won overwhelmingly again in New York.
"You know, I will bring millions of new people into this race. I see it now in what we're doing here in Iowa. People who have never caucused before. People who were never registered to vote before who are now part of the team we're building in Iowa.
"I can replicate that across the country, and because I — you know, as some of my supporters say — am battle tested, I can withstand what is going to inevitably be the Republican attacks on whoever we nominate."
FOX News' Aaron Bruns and Major Garrett contributed to this report.