Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley shakes hands with Ben Guise of Des Moines as he meets with Iowa Democratic Party volunteers Saturday. (Scott Morgan/For The Washington Post)

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was the only potential 2016 presidential contender to set foot in Iowa over the weekend, and yet the Democrat didn’t really have the stage to himself.

Shortly after O’Malley (D) spoke at a dinner Friday night for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Hillary Rodham Clinton’s image appeared on two large screens overhead. In a video, she teased that she needed advice from Harkin on a “momentous plunge” that she is about to take. “Tom, what’s the secret to being such a terrific grandparent?” Clinton asked, drawing uproarious laughter from the crowd.

The good news for O’Malley is that he appeared to be taken seriously during a two-day swing through this state, whose first-in-the-nation caucuses give it disproportionate influence in deciding the Democratic presidential nominee every four years. Almost every party activist interviewed after O’Malley’s appearances said they would welcome an alternative to Clinton in the 2016 White House race, despite polls that show her the overwhelming choice of Democrats nationwide.

“I’ve always liked Hillary, but it’s early enough that I could still be swayed,” said Carl Keeton, 58, a meatpacker from Ottumwa who was among the 370 delegates who heard O’Malley at a party convention on Saturday and rewarded his 25-minute speech with a standing ovation. “He seems young and energetic, and it’s good to have a choice.”

Others went further, saying they were inspired by an address in which O’Malley urged the activists to work to recapture “the America that we carry in our hearts” and touted his accomplishments as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks Saturday during the Iowa state Democratic Convention. (Scott Morgan/For The Washington Post)

“He can reach people on an emotional level, but he’s also accomplished things,” said Sarah Stutler, 49, a delegate who lives in Marion and, like most Democrats O’Malley encountered over the weekend, heard him speak for the first time. Accompanied by his 16-year-old son William, he seemed as relaxed and sociable as he is in Maryland, happily posing for pictures and trading stories with people who approached him at events.

Stutler said she is “in a state of waiting” for a candidate to support and is wary of Clinton, who has said she is not likely to announce whether she will run until 2015. “She’s getting shoved down our throats,” Stutler said. “We’re Iowans, and we don’t like that.”

It was the second weekend in a row that O’Malley spent time with Democrats in an early presidential nominating state. In New Hampshire, as in Iowa, he found audiences that knew little about him but were eager to learn more.

“There are well-respected Democrats here already lining up for [Clinton],” said Tom Henderson, the longtime chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa. “But I don’t think she should take it for granted if she wants to get the nomination. That’s what happened last time.”

Clinton, who was defeated in the 2008 primaries by Barack Obama, has published a new book about her years as secretary of state and launched a ballyhooed book tour. Pundits dissect her every phrase for clues as to her plans. Ready for Hillary, a super PAC, is pouring millions into the effort to persuade her to run.

O’Malley’s path has been decidedly less visible. But with increasing frequency, he is popping up on the Democratic Party speaking circuit, appearing at dinners and state conventions around the country.

Much of his activity comes under the heading of getting other Democrats elected. After Saturday’s convention, O’Malley accompanied Jack Hatch, the Iowa Democratic candidate for governor, to campaign events in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Dubuque — help that Democrats here said was genuinely appreciated.

Although O’Malley didn’t overtly tout his own ambitions in his Iowa speeches, he has acknowledged publicly that he is getting ready for a 2016 bid and will not defer his preparation until Clinton makes up her mind.

Some close to the governor say they’re convinced he will make it clear that he’s a candidate soon after leaving office in January, regardless of whether Clinton has decided. Others are more skeptical, suggesting that he wants to be ready to go if it turns out Clinton isn’t.

Terry Lierman, a former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who has been helping O’Malley raise money for a political action committee, said the governor is smart to be spending this year studying foreign and domestic policy and building a network of supporters.

“For any endeavor, if one is not prepared, the decision is made for you,” Lierman said. “If one is prepared, options become available.”

Harkin told the crowd during his remarks Friday that he considers O’Malley “one of my heroes” and ticked off a list of progressive policies the Maryland governor had championed. Among them: an increase in the minimum wage, legalization of same-sex marriage and new gun-control measures.

The compliments were “a huge lift” for O’Malley in the eyes of Iowa activists who know relatively little about him, said Patrick J. Deluhery, a former state senator from Davenport.

In an interview Saturday, Harkin said he would like to see O’Malley “continue to put himself forward as a national leader.”

“Am I endorsing him for the presidency? No. That’s not what I’m saying,” Harkin said. “But he has the qualifications to be president, and I like that’s he getting out here early.”

As to what happens in 2016, Harkin said: “You just never know.”

The landscape for O’Malley would be vastly different depending on whether Clinton runs.

“There are scenarios where he’d be one of the front-runners, I think,” said longtime national Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “And if Hillary runs, he’d be a dark horse, but an interesting one to watch.”

After seeing his convention speech Saturday, some delegates here said O’Malley struck them more as vice presidential material given his lack of foreign policy credentials and his recent arrival on the national stage. Others suggested it could be hard for O’Malley to overcome long-standing loyalties to Clinton — or to Vice President Biden, who is also weighing a run.

“You have to have a certain amount of allegiance, because they’ve proven themselves at the highest levels,” said Nicholas Lucy, 74, a military veteran and former telephone company technician who lives in Dubuque. “But there’s nothing like a healthy debate.”

Vern Tigges, 71, a retired electronics technician from Adel, said he liked what he heard from O’Malley but also voiced skepticism about a video that preceded the governor’s speech. The video credits O’Malley with solving drug and crime problems as Baltimore’s mayor and slaying a deficit he inherited as governor.

“I’m sure there are problems in Maryland that he didn’t discuss,” said Tigges, a Biden supporter.

During the cocktail hour before Friday’s dinner, Janice Strang, a former educator who lives in Urbandale, said she had heard little about O’Malley. “From Connecticut, right?” she asked a reporter.

Although curious to hear from O’Malley, Strang said: “I think it’s time for Hillary. She’s so very bright, she’s got the foreign policy experience, and right now, that’s so very important with what’s going on in Iraq.” Strang was among those at the event wearing “Ready for Hillary” stickers, which the pro-Clinton PAC was distributing from a table in the corner.

In New Hampshire, O’Malley was the featured speaker at a June 13 dinner hosted by the Manchester Democrats. He won points, activists who attended said, by delivering on-topic remarks rather than promoting himself.

O’Malley, a War of 1812 buff, relayed the story of Francis Scott Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner” after the British had been repelled from Baltimore and he saw the U.S. flag still flying over Fort McHenry.

Longtime state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro said he is pushing O’Malley to return this summer for a “Politics and Eggs” forum. The long-running series is a rite of passage in New Hampshire for potential presidential candidates, giving business and political leaders in the state a chance to kick the tires.

Does he see O’Malley moving forward with a 2016 bid?

“I think it depends totally on what Hillary does — totally,” D’Allesandro said. “I think nobody runs if she runs.”

If Clinton doesn’t enter the race, O’Malley “has a good profile,” D’Allesandro said. Of other Democrats eyeing 2016, “he’s the most talked about around here.”