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Though not on the November ballot, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has a lot at stake

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For someone whose name won’t be on the ballot in November, the stakes this year could hardly be higher for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s political future.

Over the next few months, O’Malley (D) will try to convince Marylanders to uphold the state’s new same-sex marriage law in an expected referendum. He’ll also make the case for another ballot measure that would allow in-state college tuition breaks for illegal immigrants. Defeat on either would be a blow to O’Malley.

And during the same stretch, O’Malley, as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, will be judged on his efforts to promote gubernatorial candidates in a dozen states around the country.

“By any measure, he’s got to be one of the three or four top rising stars in the party right now, so I think all of these things matter in terms of building a national following,” said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic consultant who ran former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for the presidential nomination. Trippi lives in Maryland.

As he travels the country, the impression O’Malley leaves with party activists in key states also will matter if he plans to seek national office in 2016, as many suspect.

In a colorful speech to Democrats in New Hampshire on Saturday, he both talked up the need to keep the governorship there in Democratic hands and took aim at Republicans, accusing the “constipation Congress” of hindering President Obama’s job-creation efforts.

While the year holds promise for O’Malley, it also carries substantial risks, both for his legacy and for any political ambitions he might harbor beyond Maryland.

Voters in no state have ever approved a ballot measure allowing same-sex marriage. Leading the charge in the nation’s first would bring O’Malley a wave of national attention and secure part of his record in Maryland.

On the other hand, falling short in one of the nation’s bluest states would be an embarrassment, particularly in a year when Obama and others have brought so much attention to the issue.

O’Malley’s standing also will be shaped in part by how fellow Democrats do on the ballot in a year that he acknowledges is a tough one for some of his party’s candidates for governor. A better-than-expected showing would impress Democratic donors and activists, whose support could be crucial down the road. But a poor showing could haunt him like a bad note in a personnel file.

In an interview, O’Malley acknowledged he has “a very busy summer” ahead with much to juggle, including his stewardship of Maryland.

“All of these thing are coming together at one time, and you do the best you can with the hours you have,” he said. “I feel very committed to both the marriage equality referendum and the Dream Act [immigrant tuition] referendum. They’re evidence our state is moving forward.”

Between now and November, O’Malley also is expected to continue to press Obama’s case on the Sunday talk show circuit, and he said raising money for the president’s reelection will be a priority.

Challenges at home

The campaign with the most potential to shape O’Malley’s legacy is one back home.

O’Malley’s push for same-sex marriage came in the wake of passage of a similar bill in New York championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, another up-and-coming Democrat who is frequently mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential aspirant. O’Malley was widely credited with helping muscle through Maryland’s bill this year — similar legislation failed the year before — and he signed it in March.

The new law is the subject of a petition drive by opponents that is expected to place it on the ballot in November. If voters uphold the law, O’Malley, who has actively been raising out-of-state money for what’s expected to be a multimillion-dollar campaign, could claim an important milestone.

“We are going to win in November, and that win will certainly help elevate his profile when Maryland becomes the first state to do this in a vote by the public,” said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), who is gay. “I’m sure that’s not lost on him.”

Mizeur said she and O’Malley huddled over the issue in a tent set up for DGA donors at last month’s Preakness horse race in Baltimore. As Mizeur ticked off the names of several potential national funders for the same-sex marriage campaign, O’Malley took notes on his BlackBerry and said he would follow up with phone calls.

Maryland’s Dream Act presents a lower-profile battle for O’Malley, but it has implications for his future as well.

Last year, Maryland became the 12th state to pass a law granting in-state college tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants. To qualify under Maryland’s version, a student must graduate from a high school in the state, and his or her family must file state tax returns.

The measure, which O’Malley supported, was promptly petitioned to the ballot by conservative activists, who argue it rewards illegal activity and costs the state. Maryland voters will get the final say this fall — marking the first time any state has held a public vote on the idea.

In the early stages of the campaign, supporters credit O’Malley with helping raise money and reaching out to get college presidents and other high-profile backers involved.

“His role in pivotal,” said Travis Tazelaar, campaign manager for the pro-Dream Act group Educating Maryland Kids.

Beyond Maryland’s borders

O’Malley also will play a role in coming months in campaigns beyond Maryland’s borders.

He became DGA chairman in December 2010, and his use of the perch to gain visibility around the country has done more than anything to further talk about 2016 presidential aspirations. O’Malley has not said he is interested in the White House but has done little to tamp down speculation.

The DGA’s primary role is to raise money and dole it out to Democratic candidates in need, and the organization’s chairman is rarely blamed for losses in individual states.

Still, O’Malley’s record will matter, and there are several potential pitfalls in coming months, started with Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin.

O’Malley headed to the state Thursday to appear alongside Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D), whom polls have shown lagging in his bid to unseat Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R).

“If Walker wins, the DGA is going to get a lot of criticism for not doing enough,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.

O’Malley was greeted upon his arrival in Wisconsin with a reminder that a higher profile brings additional exposure, not all of it positive. The Republican Governors Association released a Web video claiming Marylanders were “singing the blues” because of tax increases signed into law under O’Malley, including a hike in state income tax rates for six-figure earners that was enacted last month.

Another 11 gubernatorial races appear on November ballots, with no obvious opportunities for Democratic pickups.

More likely, Duffy said, is that Democrats will lose one or two of the eight governorships they currently control that are up for election this year — an outcome that could deny O’Malley “bragging rights” when he steps down as DGA chairman at the end of the year.

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