In a speech that strongly hinted at his ambitions, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said Saturday that Maryland’s most pressing challenge is the “persistent gaps and disparities” among its diverse communities in health care, education and employment.

In an address in Ocean City, Brown (D) straddled his dual roles as loyal understudy to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and as a politician who is increasingly candid about his desire to succeed O’Malley after the 2014 elections.

And in an interview, he acknowledged that he is “exploring running for governor,” moving a step beyond what he has said publicly before.

Brown’s speech was delivered at an annual summer conference of the nonpartisan Maryland Association of Counties, which this year drew no fewer than eight potential candidates for governor from both major parties.

“It’s not enough to have the best schools in the country unless every child in Maryland, whether you live in Baltimore City or Columbia, gets a top-flight education,” Brown said, filling a speaking slot at the conference traditionally reserved for the governor. He said that only 50 percent of African American eighth-graders in Maryland are deemed proficient in math, compared with more than 84 percent of white eighth-graders.

O’Malley, who is term-limited and blessed Brown’s appearance at the conference, recently blasted an e-mail to supporters, letting them know that he backs Brown “100 percent” in any future political endeavors.

Four other Democrats who have been jockeying for position for a possible 2014 bid were in attendance, with most hosting off-site fundraisers or receptions during the four-day conference.

They included Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who reaffirmed his standing as the most prolific fundraiser in the bunch when financial disclosure reports were last released in January. Gansler had $4.1 million in the bank, more than triple the amount of any potential rival for the Democratic nomination.

Comptroller Peter Franchot and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, two other potential gubernatorial candidates, also hosted fundraisers in recent days. Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery), who has recently signaled that she, too, might become part of the Democratic mix, made the rounds at the conference as well.

Republicans, who have won the governorship only once in a generation in liberal-leaning Maryland, also made their presence felt.

On hand at the conference were Blaine R. Young, president of the Frederick County commissioners; Harford County Executive David R. Craig; and Larry Hogan, who was appointments secretary to the most recent Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Hogan conducted a 2010 exploratory bid but pulled back when it became clear that Ehrlich, defeated in 2006, would seek a rematch with O’Malley.

Prospective 2014 candidates are expected to become more forthcoming about their intentions after this year’s elections conclude. To this point, most have been coy.

But Brown acknowledged that he is seriously thinking about running. In his travels around the state, Brown said, “People say, ‘I’d love for you to be the next governor.’ ”

Ulman, who drew more than 100 people to his Ocean City fundraiser Thursday, said he is “strongly considering running for governor” and “becoming more encouraged every day.”

Although none of the prospects have officially launched campaigns, they are all doing what they can to stand out.

Franchot and Mizeur, for example, spoke out against the recently concluded special legislative session on expanded gambling that was called by O’Malley. Franchot called the session “the most profound misplacement of priorities that I have seen in my 25 years in public life.”

In his speech Saturday, Brown made a point of praising the accomplishments of the O’Malley-Brown administration. But he also alluded to an agenda that extends beyond the two years O’Malley has remaining in office.

“Maryland is a great state, but I know we can build on our success, and together we an make it better,” he said.