As Fill-In, O'Malley Expands Exposure

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

CONCORD, N.H., June 2 -- Standing before hundreds of Democrats, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley called for universal health care, accused President Bush of "foreign policy malpractice" and decried the country's loss of international credibility.

Officially, he was filling in for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y) during the Democratic convention Saturday in what traditionally has been the nation's first presidential primary state. But he was also making the latest in a string of appearances that have served to broaden his exposure among the party elite and activists should he decide to pursue higher office.

That prospect is already an undercurrent of conversation in Annapolis, barely four months into O'Malley's term.

"It's the worst-kept secret in Maryland that the governor has national ambitions," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), who, like some others, questions O'Malley's extracurricular activities, given a looming $1.5 billion budget shortfall and other challenges facing Maryland.

Shortly after becoming Baltimore's mayor in 1999, O'Malley became active in several groups with national reach, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for which he has led efforts on homeland security, and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

In some ways, O'Malley's networking is reminiscent of another charismatic Democratic governor from a small state, said Al From, founder of the leadership council, a think tank that served as an incubator for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential run.

"One of the big deals with Clinton was 'Friends of Bill,' " From said. "Well, the 'Friends of Bill' were people he met through the DLC, the governors' conferences and his other political wanderings. They made up a national network that was very helpful to him."

The group has highlighted O'Malley's work on crime fighting and other programs.

O'Malley and his aides seem loath to discuss his political future, noting that a presidential run would not even be a possibility for another eight years if a Democrat wins the White House in 2008. At the same time, however, they were eager to point out his unique role Saturday.

Two other leading candidates sent more predictable surrogates. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) dispatched his wife, and former North Carolina senator John Edwards sent his campaign manager.

Asked about his ambitions, O'Malley, 44, quickly changed the subject and said that he did not expect such trips outside Maryland when he agreed to endorse Hillary Clinton.

"I didn't anticipate this, quite honestly," O'Malley said. "If I can, I will help her, wherever I can, whenever I can, mindful of the job I have to do back home."

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