O’Malley’s speech fails to meet some people’s expectations

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the year that Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, spoke to the Democratic National Convention. It was 1988. This version has been corrected.

September 5, 2012

Just hours after a prime-time speech to the Democratic National Convention, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley arrived at a breakfast here Wednesday with the Iowa delegation. It could have been a triumphant moment.

Instead, O’Malley was facing tepid reviews of Tuesday night’s performance as he addressed a few dozen activists who will help pick the winner of the nation’s first presidential caucuses in 2016.

O’Malley got a standing ovation when he finished. Still, Linda Langston, one of the delegates, seemed to sum up the group’s mood when asked what she thought of his convention performance.

“I think Martin O’Malley is a steady, solid guy,” said Langston, an official in Linn County. “Steady and solid sometimes win the race, but you also have to get people jazzed up to keep our interest over the next four years.”

Her assessment was much kinder than some that started while O’Malley was still on the podium Tuesday night, leading the crowd in chants of “Forward, not back” and warning that a Mitt Romney presidency could lead to “a country of less.”

“I think we can all agree Martin O’Malley is not better off today than he was four days ago,” Conn Carroll, an editorial writer for the Washington Examiner, said on Twitter.

True or not, it was immediately clear that O’Malley’s speech was not generating nearly the same buzz as more-spirited addresses by some of the party’s other rising stars, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who lifted the convention crowd into a frenzy just before O’Malley took the stage shortly before 10 p.m.

To some, O’Malley’s speech seemed canned. Others suggested it played better in the convention hall than on television, which didn’t capture the level of audience participation.

“He got a little competition,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, who said that the convention has been good for O’Malley in other other ways.

“For those with 2016 ambitions, this is really about getting your name out there and not falling on your face, and he certainly didn’t do that,” Duffy said. “He comes out of it with a thousand business cards, and hopefully a lot of them are from Iowa and New Hampshire.”

O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, began the week facing high — perhaps unrealistically high — expectations. For months, talk had been building about his interest in pursuing the presidency, fueled by pugnacious appearances on the Sunday talk shows as a surrogate for President Obama.

Ironically, it was a talk-show appearance that tripped O’Malley up just as his convention week was getting started. On “Face the Nation,” he answered “no” when asked if he could honestly say that the country is better off than it was four years ago.

Republicans pounced, and O’Malley scrambled in interviews and on Twitter to explain that Obama has made great progress on the economy since inheriting the “Bush recession.”

A less significant but still symbolic setback happened Monday, when O’Malley, who has a side career as a musician, was to appear on stage with a band fronted by actor Jeff Bridges during a street festival here. Shortly before O’Malley was to be called to join the band, a torrential downpour cut the show short.

There have been some considerable upsides to the week for O’Malley, whose jampacked schedule has exposed him to an array of state delegations, interest groups and business leaders. He has been almost universally well-received in those gatherings.

“When he’s walking through the place, he’s getting a good reception from people here,” veteran Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004, said Wednesday. “He’s still part of the buzz here.”

On Monday, O’Malley hit four delegation breakfasts, including one for the Indiana delegation, where he relayed that his mother was from Fort Wayne.

After his speech Tuesday night, he decamped to an Irish bar, where his Celtic rock band, O’Malley’s March, entertained at an event sponsored by the DGA until 2 a.m.

A few hours later, O’Malley was back out on the breakfast circuit, speaking to the Texas delegation before heading to the Iowa gathering. O’Malley shared with activists there that he had spent months in Iowa in the 1980s, working on Gary Hart’s two presidential campaigns.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, called O’Malley’s Tuesday speech “a missed opportunity.” But he said there could be a silver lining.

“If he can learn from it, he may in the long run be helped by this more than anything,” Eberly said.

He pointed to an example of a Democrat whose 1988 convention speech received far more negative reviews. Four years later, Bill Clinton was elected president.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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