Meet the new Bernie Sanders: he's now a real candidate, against Clinton's robot

Forget the poll leads: this socialist has a story to tell. And jokes! The latest debate showed that, one day at a time, the Sanders revolution is increasingly for real

When you come at Bernie Sanders on how old he is, you’d better, as they say in Brooklyn, come correct.

So when the CNN moderator sat down right next to the socialist turned real-life presidential frontrunner on Monday evening in Iowa and, after mistaking his age for 75, initially kind of half-joked – in that TV personality kind of way – that the 74-year-old senator was going on 75, well, the old man’s picked up some campaign-trail charm, now hasn’t he?

“I’m GOING on 75,” came the legitimately endearing faux-exasperation. “So are you!”

Then the moderator followed him across the stage at CNN’s faux-debate and purported to be tired. Sanders, as if inhabiting Larry David’s Saturday Night Live caricature because he smelled the votes a yuk away, deadpanned: “If you followed me around today, you’d be a lot more tired.”

Oh, yeah, the still-a-socialist candidate also lectured tirelessly about his hard-left agenda in first-in-the-nation flyover country. “We will raise taxes,” Sanders declared. “Yes we will.”

But meet the new Bernie Sanders: still lecturing, only now with a human course correction that could beat an increasingly robotic and vulnerable Hillary Clinton with less than a week to go before people actually – finally – start voting for a new American president.

This Bernie can ride the energy of a youthful, thousands-strong rally with the best of ’em. But this Bernie doesn’t need the kids any more. He’s got himself a brand new bag of trail-earned tricks, and it apparently involves wearing his Brooklyn heart right there on his rumpled, oversize jacket sleeve.

Of course, he had a one-liner for that one, too: “My wife told me to button my coat, but I think I’m too fat, so …”

Two very clear choices emerged from Monday’s Democratic forum – the last of at least 700 randomly timed televised “debates”, or town halls, or whatever you called them – between Clinton, Sanders and former governor Martin O’Malley, whose last hurrah even Rand Paul will no longer deign to live-tweet.

There was the softer, suddenly more endearing Old Man Sanders, and the sharp, energetic, Benghazi-proof Clinton. But with the polls and the momentum in both Iowa and New Hampshire on his side, this was a winning dichotomy for Sanders, who presented a side of himself that we haven’t really seen before: intimate, surprising, dynamic and, yes, a real boy!

When a town-hall participant asked Sanders a question about how his parents would feel about his campaign’s success, he was visibly – even honestly – moved. He said they never would have believed it. This was the foundational story that the second-generation Cubans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio still haven’t been able to muster, that Clinton couldn’t dream of when her origin story is – at this point in the Iowa hive-mind – based out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Plus, Bernie had jokes!

Hillary Clinton defends popularity among young voters at Iowa forum

For her part, Clinton came off as little more than condescending. “When I worked on healthcare back in ’93 and ’94, and I don’t know if you were born then, I can’t quite tell,” she charged at one questioner. “But, if you’d been around and had been able to pay attention, I was trying to get us to universal healthcare coverage, working with my husband.”

So, yeah, there was that.

Another time, when Clinton was asked to address her use of private email at the State Department, her answer seemed to amount to, well, um, you see: I did nothing wrong! Asked about her vote for the Iraq war, she wound her way down a long rabbit hole that ended somehow with a discussion of … internet freedom?

With Clinton and Sanders neck-and-neck, any big night at this point could set up Larry David incarnate to pull off a win in a state where, last spring, he was somewhere in the vicinity of 50 points down. What it will come down to, perhaps, is whether the enthusiasm of his voters can – uh – trump the superior voter operation drive of the Clinton machine.

Sanders has exhibited a tendency to veer too quickly toward stump-speech territory, even when circumstances call for something else entirely. But on Monday, the message always felt relevant, neatly catered to whatever had just been asked of him. You know, like a real person!

Sure, he enjoyed that extended riff on economic inequality and a plug for single-payer healthcare, but the way he worked it in, even that heavily trod material felt kinda fresh. His extended diatribe on why he’s a Democratic socialist, for instance, came only in response to an actual question about why he identifies as a socialist.

Sure, Barack Obama appears more supportive of Clinton. She’s got the newspaper endorsements and history on her side. But Clinton’s robotic performance – if still a chipper, come-and-take-it showing – proved that she may very well remain on the verge of turning into the Saturday Night Live caricature of herself.

Infinitely worse, from Clinton’s perspective, is the very real danger of ruining what she seems to have been working all her life to make come true: that she didn’t lose the best job in the world to some old dude making fat jokes.