Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Walter Mondale as the sitting vice president in 1984. He was a former vice president at that time. The article has been corrected.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s steady march toward a White House bid has turned into a wait-and-see grind, in which he will try to stay relevant in the national political conversation and await an opening to challenge presumed front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Once he leaves office in January, his associates say, O’Malley may give a handful of policy speeches on national issues. He might make some appearances around the country, and he might look to compile his writings into a book or series of books that reflect his accomplishments as governor and as mayor of Baltimore.
It’s an uncertain and modest to-do list at a time when O’Malley is barely registering in national polls despite years of working to position himself in early nominating states.
Instead of putting pressure on Clinton with a January announcement of his candidacy, those close to him say, O’Malley and his supporters now think their best shot is to sit back and see how Clinton is received. By spring, his advisers say, the appetite for a fresher, more progressive alternative in the Democratic primaries will only have grown.
“I think people have an element of Clinton fatigue,” said Dan Calegari, a Democratic activist in New Hampshire who has been friends with O’Malley for more than 30 years. “People want a new face. If Martin finds his voice, it could be him. She’s overexposed, and he’s underexposed, and he has a lot of time still to make his case. . . . I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t get in.”
Aides say that O’Malley has not made a final decision about whether he’s running and will not publicly discuss the timing of a potential bid. But short of a major embarrassment, his backers say, it’s hard to see how the exposure that comes with a White House run could hurt his prospects for future opportunities, whether as a vice-presidential nominee, Cabinet member, television commentator — or presidential candidate in 2020 or 2024.
“He’s a young man, he’s a talented guy,” said George Appleby, a Des Moines lawyer who attended a gathering of more than 100 O’Malley donors and supporters in Annapolis last week and is helping introduce O’Malley to Democrats in Iowa, home of the first presidential caucuses. “No matter what, he’s going to have a lot to offer.”
At 51, O’Malley is 16 years younger than Clinton and half a generation removed from other talked-about Democrats, including Vice President Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Virginia senator James Webb.
No one is suggesting that the odds favor O’Malley. Both detractors and longtime allies say he faces many high hurdles, including finding a way to build a fundraising base robust enough to compete in the early nominating states and beyond, if he gets that far.
Even in Maryland — where O’Malley’s approval ratings are sagging and his handpicked successor lost the governor’s race — many top Democrats have signaled their support for Clinton, citing long-standing ties with her and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, that predate O’Malley’s ascent to power. O’Malley himself was an early supporter of Clinton the last time she ran, becoming the second governor to endorse her 2008 bid.
“There’s no harm in him trying out Iowa or New Hampshire to see what people think,” said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who is supporting Clinton. “But quite frankly, I and a lot of other people think it’s time for a strong woman as president.”
During his remarks last week to donors and supporters at a hotel near the Maryland State House in Annapolis, O’Malley made no mention of his 2016 plans. Instead, he spoke of the need for “moral clarity” in American leadership, according to participants at the gathering, which was closed to the press.
He advocated economic policies that he said would be fairer to the middle class, including taxing capital gains like regular income, raising the minimum wage and increasing the income threshold for which workers are guaranteed overtime pay.
O’Malley and his staff also reflected on the governor’s accomplishments during the past eight years, which advisers say offer a lot for Democratic primary voters to like: legalization of same-sex marriage, abolishment of the death penalty, sweeping gun-control regulations, investments in alternative energy sources and an increase in the state’s minimum wage.
There was a lengthy discussion, those in the room said, of O’Malley’s work on issues of importance to the Latino community, including implementation of the “Dream Act” in Maryland. The law allows undocumented immigrants to receive in-state college tuition rates under some circumstances.
O’Malley, who in July criticized the White House for a lack of compassion in response to the flood of unaccompanied children streaming across the border, relayed an anecdote about meeting a boy who had fled violence in Central America and was being housed in Maryland. The boy threw his arms around O’Malley when they met, the governor said, and hugged him.
Attendees were briefed on the work of O’Malley’s political action committee, which has helped fund his extensive travel over the past year and is paying the salaries of a modest but growing political staff. Recent hires include senior adviser Bill Hyers, who managed New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign, and policy director Sarah Miller, who was on the policy team of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Attendees also heard from several of the 32 young staffers dispatched around the country by O’Malley’s PAC to help with 2014 races in battleground states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Wisconsin.
About two-thirds of the attendees at the gathering were from Maryland, aides said. Others included Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes and H. Boyd Brown, a member of the Democratic National Committee from South Carolina, an early primary state.
“There are a lot of people out there who don’t want to see a torch passed back up,” Brown, a former state legislator, said when asked to explain his inclination to support O’Malley over Clinton. “He has a record that is fantastic, in my opinion. It’s forward-looking, progressive and sometimes aggressive.”
Several attendees sought to make the case that Clinton’s expected entrance into the race has narrowed the potential Democratic field in a way that could work to O’Malley’s advantage once voters begin to size up their choices.
“Martin has the most gravitas of the Hillary alternatives,” said Bruce Charash, a New York cardiologist who has donated to O’Malley’s PAC.
O’Malley cut his teeth in politics as a young aide to Gary Hart during the 1984 presidential election, in which he was dispatched to Iowa. Several of O’Malley’s biggest boosters are friends from that campaign, in which Hart, a senator from Colorado, came out of nowhere to become a serious threat to Walter Mondale, the former vice president, for the Democratic nomination. (Hart started the 1988 cycle as the Democratic front-runner but was derailed by a sex scandal.)
Appleby, the Des Moines lawyer, said he sees several parallels between the 1984 contest and the race for the 2016 nomination.
“In 1984, Mondale was the establishment guy,” Appleby said. “He had the money, he had the endorsements. Gary Hart was coming at him from far below in the polls. The Iowa caucuses were all about who was going to be the alternative to Mondale. That second place just catapulted him into New Hampshire. I think that might be similar to what’s going to happen now, if Martin runs.”
Aides say O’Malley is focused on finishing his tenure as governor, which ends Jan. 21 with the arrival of Republican Larry Hogan. In recent weeks, O’Malley has issued major environmental regulations on hydraulic fracturing and farm-pollution controls, drawing the ire of his successor. And he is weighing whether to commute the sentences of Maryland’s four death-row inmates.
While O’Malley is aware of the naysayers, several of his longtime associates, including Steve Kearney, a former communications director, said he’s not likely to be deterred by their doubts.
“He’s never been bothered by difficult challenges, and he keeps moving forward,” Kearney said.