If Democrats could find a candidate to Hillary Clinton’s left domestically, without her record of foreign policy stumbles (including, from the left’s perspective, her vote for the Iraq war) and without her ethical landmines, would they grab him? Especially if the alternative were, say, 15 years younger and had some real executive experience, it might seem like a no-brainer. And so, we wonder, is it former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley’s moment?

His debate performance was not only his strongest, but also the strongest of any Clinton challenger to date. He slammed her from the right on national security (making him more difficult for Republicans to attack), but on domestic policy, he reached out to the base. He argued that “we restored voting rights to 52,000 people, we decriminalized possession of small amounts of … marijuana. I repealed the death penalty, and we also put in place a civilian review board.” On guns, he argued that he has been leading while Clinton has put her finger to the wind. “We passed comprehensive gun safety legislation, background checks, ban on assault weapons,” he said. He chided Clinton, whom he accused has “been on three sides of this. When you ran in 2000 you said that we needed federal robust regulations. Then in 2008 you were portraying yourself as Annie Oakley and saying that we don’t need those regulation on the federal level.” He twisted the knife, telling the moderator that “there’s a big difference between leading by polls and leading with principle.”

More than on substance, however, he seems stylistically to have a gift for well-placed attacks on Clinton, highlighting her weaknesses. He is not insulting or outlandish, as Donald Trump is, but O’Malley can be just as biting. MSNBC reported on O’Malley’s Sunday appearance in Ames, Iowa:

O’Malley’s tone was especially notable, as it was significantly more critical than it has been in the past, both towards Clinton and Sanders.
Speaking with reporters, O’Malley said Clinton made a “gaffe” in a “very, very distasteful way, trying to pump out a smokescreen for her coziness with the big banks of Wall Street by invoking the tragedy of 9/11 and those attacks — and especially so fresh after so many were murdered in Paris.”
And it wasn’t just Clinton whom O’Malley targeted. “I don’t believe we need to scrap capitalism and replace it with socialism, as Sen. Sanders thinks,” he said of Sanders.

On Monday, O’Malley twisted the knife again, calling her 9/11 justification for Wall Street donations “pretty shameful” and accused her of “wrapping herself in the tragedy of 9/11.”

Frankly, he reminds us a lot of Clinton — Bill Clinton. Not only is O’Malley a young man with gubernatorial experience, as Clinton had in 1992, but O’Malley is also engaging in classic “triangulating,” veering to Clinton’s left on Wall Street and to her right on terrorism (but still to the GOP’s left).

O’Malley is currently no threat to Clinton. But what if she falters, or is snared in the FBI investigation? Vice President Joe Biden is not on the ballot anywhere; O’Malley has a campaign operation. Besides, Biden is even older than Clinton and has his fingerprints all over the failed Obama foreign policy. O’Malley can disclaim responsibilities for the serial blunders.

O’Malley should hang in there, keep punching and position himself as the real backup to Clinton. Given a choice of running against the senior citizen and socialist, the failed former secretary of state or the former Maryland governor, Republicans, I am certain, would least prefer O’Malley. With O’Malley, the Democrats’ vulnerabilities shrink. Instead of playing defense, they can wage a standard war against the GOP as the party of the rich.

Democrats now may see him as a non-entity, but that is precisely why, of the three contenders, he could be most effective waging a negative campaign against the GOP. The last thing the GOP wants is to run against a young, progressive ex-governor who cannot be blamed for the Obama debacles, both foreign and domestic.