On Tuesday night in Miami, the Bernie Sanders who once boasted of his status as a "radical" met up with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the formidable major-party presidential candidate.
After the debate's organizers aired a three-decades-old clip of Sanders praising Fidel Castro, the communist Cuban dictator who came to power in the 1950s, some really might have expected trouble. In response, Sanders tried to remain true to his socialist principles in praising Cuba's universal health care and education systems, but he made mention of Cuba's authoritarian, undemocratic government.
“What that was about was saying that the United States was wrong to try to invade Cuba, that the United States was wrong trying to support people to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, that the United States was wrong trying to overthrow in 1954 the democratically elected government of Guatemala," Sanders said.
That certainly wasn't the easiest answer to give to a crowd in Miami. In recent years, the area's large and influential Cuban dissident population has been joined by people from South American countries controlled by leftist governments with communist ties.
Not surprisingly, the audience at the debate did some booing as Sanders tried to walk the line between supporting what he sees as the benefits of a communist Cuba -- universal health care which eats up less than 10 percent of the nation's GDP, a 99.8 percent literacy rate and free higher education -- and the reality of how the Castro regime has maintained power. It is a dictatorship sustained by force, dissident imprisonment and control of information and travel.
Sanders -- a man who joined the Young People's Socialist League in college, honeymooned in the Soviet Union and spoke at a Sandinista government anniversary celebration in the 1980s -- is probably quite a bit more sophisticated than most Americans in the way that he came to express his mixed review of Cuba. And while his views on Cuba and Latin Americans countries might at one time have really marginalized him -- even in a Democratic primary -- when it comes to the here-and-now and today's key issues, Sanders's views do not put him far afield of the mainstream.
A majority of Americans support both ending the trade embargo with Cuba and normalizing diplomatic relations with the country, according to the Pew Research Center.
Washington Post-ABC News polling has shown much the same.
And before you chalk this up to people just not really knowing what's happening in Cuba, there are indicators that most Americans are under no illusions about the country's government or how it is likely to clean up its act in the near future.
Of course, none of this means that Sanders's radical past and continued support of socialist governments would fail to be a big, big issue in a general election. In fact, should Sanders become the Democratic nominee, debate-watchers can, among other things, expect many, many more questions about his political philosophy -- along with the formal steps he took to express his opposition to the Reagan Administration's decision to fund and arm a right-wing opposition group in communist Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua while Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vt.
But for now, in a Democratic presidential primary in Florida, if Sanders pays only a slight price for his past comments, that really says something.