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When guns came up in the debate, Bernie Sanders sounded nothing like Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders has surged to second place in the Democratic primary by proposing bold progressive reforms on issue after issue. But during the debate Tuesday night, he shied away from doing that on one big topic: gun control.

"As a senator from a rural state," Sanders said, "what I can tell Secretary Clinton that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want" — end gun violence. Later, he added that while he supports some tougher gun control proposals, "I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not."

Quickly, Hillary Clinton seized a rare opportunity to attack Sanders from the left. When asked if the Vermont senator was tough enough on guns, she responded, "Not at all." It's time, she said, that "the entire country stood up against the NRA," and said, "enough of that — we're not going to let it continue."

The exchange felt jarring. It's usually Clinton who defends a more pragmatic approach geared at not alienating moderate voters, while Sanders argues for uniting the public around bold liberal proposals that more mainstream members of the party think are too left-wing to succeed — single-payer health care, big new spending programs, a carbon tax, free college for all. This is central to how Sanders thinks political change happens: that if you unabashedly make the case for progressive policies to the American people, eventually, you win them over and bring about a "political revolution."

Here, on guns, these usual roles were reversed. Sanders, all of a sudden, sounded very un-Sanders-like — saying he supported liberal policies but was skeptical that they could actually win public support. Clinton, meanwhile, was the one arguing that the laws of politics could be defied, and that big new gun control measures could be enacted.

But this reticence to challenge the public on guns actually isn't unusual for Sanders — it's core to his political strategy. Because to get the change he wants on economic issues, Sanders knows he needs to mobilize voters who don't traditionally support Democrats around progressive policies — including the white, rural, and working-class voters who tend to be skeptical of tougher gun laws.

Sanders wants to unite the less wealthy against the wealthy — and the gun issue makes that more difficult

First of all, it should be noted Sanders just isn't super-liberal on guns. He's certainly not a conservative on the issue — as he pointed out in the debate, the NRA has given him a D-minus rating, and he's supported the assault weapons ban and Senate Democrats' post-Newtown gun control bill. But he seems naturally sympathetic to the concerns of rural gun owners from Vermont, the state he represents — even arguing in the past that gun control shouldn't be a federal concern.

But second, and more importantly, Sanders seems to see gun control as a divisive social issue that makes it more difficult for them to unite voters around the liberal economic policies he is far more passionate about.

Over Sanders's four decades in politics, he's always been laser-focused on checking the power of the wealthy above all else. Even as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, influenced by the hours he spent in the library stacks reading famous philosophers, he became frustrated with his fellow student activists, who were more interested in race or imperialism than the class struggle. They couldn't see that everything they protested, he later said, was rooted in "an economic system in which the rich controls, to a large degree, the political and economic life of the country." The only way to challenge the rich, he believes, is to unite the less rich.

Accordingly, a major part of his strategy for change focuses on winning back the loyalty of white, elderly, and rural voters — traditionally Republican constituencies — for the Democratic Party. That's how he hopes to achieve his "political revolution," and pass progressive policies that have historically lacked support in Congress. "I do not know how you can concede the white working class to the Republican Party, which is working overtime to destroy the working class in America," Sanders told me last year.

So I don't think it's an accident that Sanders has a different tune on the gun issue. He wants to bring new voters into the Democratic Party, to better challenge the power of the wealthy on economics. And pushing hard to the left on guns could risk alienating many of those voters.

VIDEO: Bernie Sanders on guns, "Shouting won't work"