CNN held yet another town hall format interview last night, this one with Senator Bernie Sanders (Socialist Democrat – Vermont). They’ve been hosting these events for pretty much anyone suspected of harboring 2020 ambitions recently, so that didn’t come as much of a surprise. Wolf Blitzer was the moderator and, in at least one exchange, he appeared to hit Sanders with some tougher questions than we’ve come to expect.

The first one to keep an eye on is when Blitzer quotes Donald Trump’s SOTU address where he talked about not allowing the United States to become a socialist nation. He then asks Sanders if he can also assure Americans that we won’t be going full socialist if he’s elected. Let’s give it a listen and see if Bernie ever actually answers the question.

Wolf Blitzer: Senator, President Trump said in a State of the Union address, and I am quoting him now, this is the president, ‘America will never be a socialist country.’ Will that hold true if you’re elected president?

Bernie Sanders: If I am elected president, we will have a nation in which all people have health care as a right. Whether Trump likes it or not. We are going to make public colleges and universities tuition free. We are going to raise the minimum wage to a living wage of at least 15 bucks an hour, and whether Trump likes it or not, when I talk about human rights, you know what that also means, it means that our kids and grandchildren have the human right to grow up in a planet that is healthy and habitable. And it is really a disgrace and an embarrassment that we have a president who rejects science, who does not even understand that climate change is real and caused by human activity, who does not understand what this planet will look like in years to come if we do not go forward boldly and transform our energy system away from fossil fuels.

This is a performance that qualifies as a complete non-answer. Despite proudly labeling himself with the tag in other venues, Sanders studiously avoids even saying the “S word” in that long and rambling answer. So he’s not saying he will make America a socialist nation… but he’s also not saying he won’t. Let’s see how well that one plays in the heartland next year.

That wasn’t the only question where Sanders fumbled on the socialism issue. Blitzer also asked him why he continues to refuse to label Nicolas Maduro a dictator. The hemming and hawing over what sort of “democratic processes” were still in place in Venezuela are almost painful to watch.

Well, he, I think it’s fair to say that the last election was undemocratic. But there are still Democratic operations taking place in their country. The point is, what I am calling for right now is internationally supervised free elections…

Yeah, they recently had an election and no amount of international monitors were going to be able to make it either free or fair. That’s because they live under the thumb of a socialist dictator, no matter how much Sanders wants to avoid insulting Maduro. These are the sorts of questions that will continue to dog Bernie all through the primary process. He ducks, bobs and weaves to avoid talking directly about socialism, but he can’t bring himself to condemn it or even insult any socialist leaders.

Unfortunately for Bernie, the playing field has changed quite a bit. Sanders was the far-left outsider in 2016 during his battle with Hillary Clinton. For those looking for wildly liberal policies, he was pretty much the only game in town so he drew a lot of support. But this year, the field is packed with people struggling to outdo each other in terms of veering as far left as possible. Sanders may find his voice getting lost in the crowd and potential supporters might start shopping around if he sticks with all of his blatant socialist schtick.

But then again, maybe not. The early polling still shows Sanders as the only candidate within shouting distance of Joe Biden (who isn’t even officially running yet) and his fundraising is once again off to a hot start. Sanders raised more than ten million dollars in one week. I’ll confess I often have trouble trying to delve into the mindset of the liberal base, so maybe Bernie will have the legs to last out this marathon battle. In a way, I almost hope he can. He still strikes me as among the most beatable ones in the running.