Monica McCarthy was at Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry in September, a big Iowa Democratic shindig, and she remembers the featured speaker, the governor of Maryland, the handsome guy in blue jeans who gave her an autograph.
His speech was pleasant enough, recalled McCarthy, chairwoman of Iowa’s Union County Democratic Party, but could have used “some polish.”
“He needs fire in the belly if he wants to be president,” she said.
What was his name again?
“Deval Patrick? . . .” McCarthy said, mistakenly invoking the Massachusetts governor. “Oh damn . . . Mike McNally? An Irish name?”
His name is Martin O’Malley, and he hasn’t said much about what he’ll do when his term as Maryland’s governor expires in two years, even as pundits and politicos have promoted him as a presidential contender in 2016.
Just focusing on my job, the governor likes to say, eager to add that the attention is all very flattering. Or he deflects the question, as he did in New Orleans on Super Bowl weekend, when he told “CBS This Morning” that the next election is “a long way away.”
And yet: There was O’Malley at Iowa’s steak-fry version of a political coming-out party. And there he was in New Hampshire for its statewide convention. There he was at the Democratic National Convention last summer, speaking from the podium during prime time. There he is on such talk shows as “Meet the Press,” regularly smacking Republicans.Esquire magazine recently highlighted him (“What It Takes, Now”), as did the Atlantic’s Web site (“Forget Paul Ryan, Martin O’Malley Has the Best Abs on the Hill”).
Of course, the next presidential election is almost four years away, but the reality of modern campaigning is that it starts when election night hangovers end — a marathon of trips to Iowa and New Hampshire and meet-and-greets with fundraisers and media consultants, all to build a national brand.
If Democrats are pushing gilded names such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden, Republicans are promoting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
But politics is also defined by uncertainty and ever-changing terrain — “Will Hillary run?” may be the question of the moment — leaving potential openings for less prominent candidates such as Maryland’s governor.
Each stage of the process has its own audience. At this point, it’s expected that potential candidates will be familiar — or at least recognizable — to the people who matter: the county party chairmen, the local activists, the insiders who serve as delegates to the national convention.
Whatever the calculus, O’Malley fever is not exactly overtaking the all-important climes of Iowa and New Hampshire, if a thoroughly random survey of Democratic chieftains bears any resemblance to reality.
Yes, there are those who know of O’Malley, that he’s a governor, that he’s well-spoken and even that he plays in a Celtic rock-n-roll band.
But there are those such as Dale Creech, 62, a retired factory worker who is chairman of Iowa’s Dallas County Democratic Party, who are flummoxed by a mention of the governor. “I heard the name,” Creech said, “but off the top of my head, I couldn’t tell you which party he belongs to.”
What has made an impression on Jan Bauer, chairwoman of Story County’s Democratic Party committee in Iowa, is that the O’Malley “has shown interest and that he’s not backing away. I predict we will see much more of Governor O’Malley in the next few years.”
But, she added, “people mention Hillary, and they mention Biden. It’s the high-profile folks who get the chatter right now.”
The governor’s name is not exactly ricocheting around the South, either.
Dick Harpootlian, head of South Carolina’s Democratic Party, recalled that the “pleasant reception” O’Malley got at a breakfast with state delegates at the Democratic convention was far tamer than the one they gave Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who “knocked it out of the park.”
“I don’t think anyone came out on fire over Martin O’Malley,” Harpootlian said. “They’re ambivalent, at best. At worst, they don’t know who he is.”
O’Malley’s passion for politics has been obvious since college, when he volunteered for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign, on through his successful race for the Baltimore City Council in 1991. He was Baltimore’s mayor from 1999 to 2006, when he was elected governor.
Maryland has never been known as a glide path to national office, not unless you count Spiro T. Agnew (R), who in three years went from executive of Baltimore County to governor to vice president, a job from which he resigned in disgrace. O’Malley’s immediate predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), practiced law after leaving Annapolis. Parris N. Glendening (D) went to work for a think tank. After he was governor, William Donald Schaefer (D) became state comptroller.
The talk of O’Malley’s purported presidential ambitions intensified in 2010, when he became chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, a role that allowed him to broaden his focus beyond Maryland, campaigning for Democrats nationwide, meeting major donors and activists, regularly appearing on talk shows and speaking at A-list party functions.
The governor drew attention when he established O’ Say Can You See,a political action committee that can help fund the travel necessary for him to build a national reputation.
Democratic strategists say O’Malley is well positioned to attract primary voters with his advocacy for same-sex marriage and the Dream Act, which extends in-state tuition discounts for undocumented college students. He would run on a record that would also include expanding subsidized health care and continuing to make record investments in education.
This year, he’s advancing his credentials as a progressive by pushing some of the nation’s toughest gun-control measures, a repeal of the death penalty and incentives for an offshore wind farm.
O’Malley’s political advisers say they are focused on crafting his legacy as governor and preparing him for whatever he may do next, whether it’s seeking a federal Cabinet post, running in another campaign or trying something unforeseen. They rarely talk about 2016.
“It would be crazy for it not to be in the back of people’s heads, but it’s not something that’s explicitly discussed,” said one adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to freely talk about the governor.
That O’Malley is not a household name beyond Maryland is not a concern at this point, his advisers say. Once his term ends in January 2015, he could camp out in Iowa for a year if he decides to run.
But his future may not be his to dictate. If Clinton campaigns for the presidency, for example, O’Malley’s aides said the governor probably would stay out, in part because of her prominence but also because of his loyalty to her. During an appearance on “CBS This Morning,” O’Malley praised Clinton as a “very impressive person” who “would make an outstanding president.”
Republican strategists view O’Malley as little known and untested on the national stage, and a recent WMUR Granite State poll — yes, there’s polling even now — appeared to prove the point. O’Malley was the favorite of less than 1 percent of likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire in 2016.
Clinton? Sixty-three percent.
Still, Republicans seethe over the governor’s brittle attacks, such as when he derided Christie as a “colorful character” who lives in a “make-believe world.”
In New Hampshire last year, O’Malley dismissed what he called the Republican-led “constipation Congress” for not acting on President Obama’s jobs plan. “These Republican obstructionists wouldn’t pass gas if they thought it might help our president heal our economy,” O’Malley said.
He also challenged Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to a push-up contest.
Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, said O’Malley “has made a lot of enemies, and a lot of people would certainly like to give it back to him.”
“That kind of personality may play well in Maryland. It doesn’t play well in the Midwest,” Goeas said. “I have so many examples of the guy being a Class-A jerk I can’t even begin to list them.”
Strategist Karl Rove has said Republicans would be “blessed” if O’Malley ran, saying he would be the “Howard Dean of 2016,” a reference to the former Vermont governor whose candidacy tanked in 2004. “Let him go out there and say let’s tax everybody more, let’s spend everything we got,” Rove said last summer.
The more difficult challenges, Democratic strategists say, are distinguishing himself from Clinton, Biden and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, another purported contender, who embraces the same policies, and proving his viability by raising money.
“He has to be the interesting, scrappy start-up company trying to get into the mix with the blue-chip heavyweights,” said Chris Lehane, a strategist who advised the campaigns of Al Gore and Wesley Clark. “If you’re the start-up, there’s a lot more burden on you to distinguish yourself. What is your vision?”
Robert Shrum, the Democratic consultant whose clients have included Secretary of State John F. Kerry, said O’Malley’s rationale cannot be “a recycled version” of Hart, “that I’m new and young. It’s got to be richer than that.”
“He has the résumé, he looks qualified, and he has done things and fought for things that Democratic primary voters care about,” Shrum said. “You have to go somewhere from there. Elections are not rewards for past performance. What’s his argument?”
In Iowa last week, Gary Gelner, Hancock County’s Democratic Party chairman, recalled being amazed by Obama when he visited the state as a little-known candidate in 2007.
“The guy could sell refrigerators to Eskimos,” he said. “He was one of those guys who impressed us out of the gate.”
Gelner was certain that he had seen the governor speak somewhere in the past year, perhaps in person in Iowa or maybe on television. So many pols have rolled through over the years, he said, that he just couldn’t be sure.