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If Hillary Clinton is to lose the "frontrunner" tag for the Democratic presidential nomination, it will boil down to just one issue: likeability.

Frontrunner Hillary Clinton is no longer a certainty to become the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, much less America's first female president.

That sentence was certainly true when she first ran in 2008, and may become so once again. If it does, it could boil down to just one issue: likeability.

There was a moment during the Democratic presidential candidate debate in New Hampshire on January 5, 2008 that summed up the problem. Two days earlier, senator Clinton had finished a disappointing third in the influential Iowa caucuses behind senator Obama and former senator John Edwards. Polls in second-to-vote New Hampshire showed Obama taking the lead — the one-two blow would have been a stunning early knockout for Clinton.

Despite her high profile and air of competence, surveys had found that while voters said Hillary Clinton was the most experienced and electable Democrat, they just didn't like her that much.

Midway through that debate between Clinton, Obama, Edwards and governor Bill Richardson, Scott Spradling, a news anchor at the local TV station WMUR broached the subject on everyone's mind:

"What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on this stage tonight, who see a resume and like it but are hesitating on the likability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more," he asked.

Clinton stood with a fixed smile through the question before answering crisply: "Well, that hurts my feelings."

Spradling: "I'm sorry, senator. I'm sorry."

Clinton: "But I'll try to go on. He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad."

At that point Obama, mostly looking down rather than at his rival, added grudgingly: "You're likable enough, Hillary."

Clinton, still smiling, decided to take the faint praise as if it were a genuine compliment: "Thank you so much. I appreciate that."

It was an awkward exchange. Faced with a question about her likeability, Clinton came across as kind of sarcastic. Obama managed to be likeable despite his cool, detached air and the fact that at that point of the testy campaign he clearly didn't like Hillary at all.

The day following the debate, Clinton was campaigning in a coffee shop in Portsmouth N.H. when a woman asked her what might have seemed like a trivial, even sexist question, but one which took on a deeper meaning thanks to her response:

"How did you get out the door every day?" the woman asked, "I mean, as a woman, I know how hard it is to get out of the house and get ready. Who does your hair?"

Clinton joked briefly that she had help some days, but then she turned serious, and unexpectedly, tears began to well in her eyes: "I just don't want to see us fall backward as a nation," Clinton began, "This is very personal for me. Not just political. It's not just public. I see what's happening. We have to reverse it."

In context, she was actually talking about what was happening to America under the presidency of George W. Bush, but at the same time she could have been talking about her own public image and her presidential campaign.

For some, Hillary's tears were a cynical political stunt — a desperate attempt at looking human and "likable". Others said, no, the tears were real, but she was cracking up under the strain — how can this woman be president, they asked.

But for enough voters in New Hampshire in January 2008 it was a moment of authenticity, and real emotion stemming from a love of her country and a commitment to make it better.

Clinton surged back in the polls to win the primary a few days later, and while she didn't ultimately overcome the wave of support for Obama, by the time the nominating contest was over, she earned 17.7 million votes, just 151,000 fewer than the future president.

Despite the bitterness of their contest, Obama and Clinton patched things up, albeit warily at first, until she finally accepted his request for her to serve as secretary of state. That role further burnished Hillary's reputation, making her Obama's likely successor, while also sowing the seeds of scandal that could still deny her the ultimate political office.

Heading into 2016 there is no Barack Obama poised to snatch away the Democratic party nomination, although disconcertingly, a 73-year-old socialist independent senator in Bernie Sanders is now ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire polls and coming close in Iowa.

Nationally, the polls are looking a little better for Clinton, but the trend lines are bad. In March, she was attracting well over 60 per cent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, five months later that's down almost 20 points to 47 per cent.

The key is her declining favourability numbers. In Clinton's final year as secretary of state in 2012-13, as speculation started to build she would soon be running for the presidency again, Clinton was viewed favourably by 66 per cent of voters, up from 46 per cent when she last ran for president in 2007-08. According to one recent poll, her favourability numbers have slumped to just 39 per cent — i.e. seven points below where she was when she lost the nomination to Obama.

There's no doubt there has been a steady drum beat of criticism from conservatives over Clinton's use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state, which allowed her to delete thousands of messages she says were personal. The allegation, as yet unproven, is that her desire for privacy (or paranoid mania for secrecy) may have compromised classified material.

That issue threatens to overlap with questions over what she knew of the security threat before — and therefore might have done to prevent — the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. And in the fevered hopes of some Republicans, there is a scenario that could see the controversies conflate to the point that they could argue the lives of American diplomats were lost in Benghazi because of Clinton's bungles and lax email security.

It comes down to something closely related to, but even harder to build than likeability, and that is trust. Worryingly for Clinton, when voters were asked recently for the first word that popped into their head when they thought about Hillary, the top answer was "liar". When the same question was asked about Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, they said "arrogant", and of Jeb Bush they answered obliquely, "Bush".

Still, Democrats are getting worried their one viable nominee may not be a sure fire bet. Worried enough that there is mounting speculation the (likeable) vice-president Joe Biden will launch a late presidential campaign — perhaps not so much to try to beat Clinton, who he is politically and personally fairly close to, but to pick up the baton should she stumble and fall.

But to be fair, Hillary's poll numbers are actually pretty strong, if not as strong as they were back in March. She has a chance to win back the waverers and win over the doubters. She has tied up major donors and endorsements from the "establishment" of the Democratic Party, aided by deep pockets from Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

With just five months to go until the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire once again start the process of selecting the next US president, the challenge for Clinton is to let down her guard just a little, cut the sarcasm and be authentic — if she is hurt, be hurt, just as she did at that coffee shop in New Hampshire in January 2008.

Maybe then voters will finally decide she is "likeable enough".

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