It’s a challenge Hillary Clinton hasn’t faced often in her life.

The former secretary of state, carpetbagger senator and first lady who did her university thesis on “Rules for Radicals” leftist Saul Alinsky has seldom had to stand up and defend her “progressive” credentials.

But that was before she became part of the “Clinton Machine,” as Bernie Sanders has called it – a term I may have coined in the 1990s.

It was also before she became part of the “political establishment,” as Sanders charged in their first mano a mano, two-person debate showdown Thursday night.

And that was before she became a darling of Goldman-Sachs, which Bernie Sanders pronounces like a barnyard epithet.

When Joe Biden called Bernie Sanders “authentic,” he was no doubt referring to the way he credibly wields his “lefter-than-thou,” socialist credentials.

Hillary may be every bit as socialist as Sanders, but she has learned throughout her political career not to speak the word.

Sanders, on the other hand, is gambling on the probability that the S-word is no longer a dirty word in American politics.

Remember, Clinton didn’t even face this kind of predicament when she ran against Barack Obama in 2008. Obama talked about “spreading the wealth around” in an exchange with Joe the Plumber when he didn’t realize he was being recorded. But he did not call himself a socialist. He ran largely as a mainstream Democrat “progressive,” even mocking the notion that he was a socialist.

Sanders is not ashamed of labeling himself one. He has done so throughout his political career – successfully so – rising from small-town mayor to member of the House of Representatives and then a senator from Vermont with a thick Brooklyn accent.

In fact, he’s been a socialist since his college days. He’s comfortable in those shoes. And that’s why he’s got Hillary on defense – an uncomfortable place to be when you’re not necessarily the front-runner and presumed nominee any more.

He got under her skin in that debate. She accused him of a “very artful smear” to the boos and catcalls of the Democratic audience.

Sanders’ talk of a “political revolution” excites the Democratic base. They’re ready for this. I’m not convinced it’s a winning recipe in a general election, but it is proving powerful in a Democratic primary.

This is a nightmare for Hillary that she and her left-wing dreams of the past helped create.

Hillary’s in a bind.

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She can’t run away from her heartfelt views, which are nearly indistinguishable from Sanders’. But she remains vulnerable to his attacks on the “political establishment,” of which she is undeniably a part. She remains vulnerable to his denunciation of the “1 percenters,” of which she is undeniably a part. She remains vulnerable to the Goldman-Sachs linkage, which is undeniably true. She took nearly $700,000 from the firm.

Sanders also has the advantage of calling himself an underdog. Who can argue that he entered this race as one? He has shocked the political world by raising more money than Hillary and her machine.

Sanders is not just a problem for Hillary.

He’s also one for the Republican candidates.

In the year 2016, it’s no longer enough to call your opponent a “socialist” to discredit him. There are obviously just too many socialist voters out there. Obama has successfully created many more over the last eight years – people who think socialism means they have a “right” to all the food they want, all the health insurance they want, all the college education they want, the job they want, the income they want. These low-information voters just don’t understand what they are giving up – or don’t care.

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