Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (left) and Gov. Martin O'Malley speak Friday to hundreds who rallied to support tougher gun ownership laws in the state. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was given a hero’s welcome by dozens of college students when he showed up at a rally last week outside the State House.

Taking his turn on the podium before the governor, William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, pointed to a blown-up bar graph showing that tuition and fees had increased by a smaller percentage than in any other state since 2007.

“Unbelievable!” Kirwan told the crowd. “That’s because of the great leadership from our governor!”

It probably won’t be the last time O’Malley (D) is congratulated this year in Annapolis, where lawmakers are on the verge of handing him several more big wins, including gun-control legislation and a repeal of the death penalty.

But outside State Circle, the reception is much more frosty.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley gets little lift from political wins

Only 49 percent of Marylanders approve of the job O’Malley is doing as governor, a new Washington Post poll has found. That’s little changed from the fall but down from his high of 57 percent in September 2010, shortly before his reelection to a second term. It is also well shy of the assessment President Obama receives in deep-blue Maryland (61 percent) and lower than what O’Malley’s Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., got the summer before he was voted out of office in 2006 (56 percent).

While O’Malley maintains more supporters than detractors (41 percent disapprove), he gets no better than mixed marks from the public on a variety of key issues, including a concerted push he has made since taking office in 2007 to make college tuition more affordable. In the poll, more Marylanders say they think O’Malley is doing a not-so-good or poor job in that regard than say he is doing an excellent or good one.

And while O’Malley is widely touted by pundits as a potential 2016 presidential contender, the poll shows that Hillary Rodham Clinton is wildly more popular in his state.

Clinton, who has not announced whether she will run, is the preference of 56 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in Maryland. She is followed by Vice President Biden at 18 percent, O’Malley at 8 percent and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at 4 percent.

Analysts offered several possible explanations for O’Malley’s mediocre marks. Some said he could do a better job of communicating his accomplishments or that he is an easy target to blame for Marylanders’ continuing economic struggles.

And some suggested he has pushed several polarizing issues in recent years — including same-sex marriage — as he has gained more attention on a national stage.

“He’s taken some very gutsy positions on some controversial issues,” said Thomas F. Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “My suspicion is that’s poisoned the well and brought him down some.”

In the fall, O’Malley won big at the ballot box as Maryland voters approved a handful of measures he championed. But two of those, same-sex marriage and an expanded gambling plan, squeaked by on narrow margins.

Two other measures, on college tuition rates for illegal immigrants and congressional redistricting, passed more comfortably but still drew opposition from a sizable chunk of the electorate.

“Governor O’Malley measures performance not by poll numbers but by Maryland’s progress,” O’Malley spokesman Teddy Davis said in response to the poll findings.

Davis cited a speech that Obama gave to the nation’s governors last week in which he praised O’Malley for closing the state’s budget gap while keeping the cost of college tuition down and making Maryland schools among the best in the nation.

O’Malley’s job rating — 49 percent approval vs. 41 percent disapproval — is nearly identical to October’s, the lowest in the Post polls since he took office. (Some polls taken in the immediate aftermath of a 2007 special session on taxes had him lower.)

In the new Post poll, about two-thirds of Democrats approve of O’Malley’s performance, while a like number of Republicans disapprove. Independents are split.

There is a huge disparity in the way O’Malley is viewed in different regions of the state. He is relatively popular in Prince George’s County (70 percent approval) and Montgomery County (63 percent) but far less so in the Baltimore suburbs (37 percent) and the state’s rural counties (35 percent).

Across Maryland, O’Malley’s job approval lags Obama’s by 12 percentage points, a disparity due in large part to softer support among African American Democrats.

On the key issues tested in The Post’s poll, O’Malley fares best on cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Fifty-two percent say he is doing a good job, while 34 percent say he is not. On improving access to health care, 48 percent give O’Malley positive marks while 41 percent rate him negatively.

On other issues, O’Malley is viewed less charitably.

Last week’s rally outside the State House was only the most recent time that Maryland’s relatively low increases in college tuition rates have been trumpeted at an O’Malley event. During his first three years in office, O’Malley maintained a tuition freeze. Since then, tuition has been allowed to increase by only 3 percent a year.

Those numbers have not swayed Marylanders such as Stella Greene, 67, who said her grandson recently had to leave the University of Maryland at College Park because he had such a hard time paying tuition. He is now enrolled in a community college in Baltimore.

“I don’t know that it’s O’Malley’s fault,” said Greene, a Democrat who worked as communications manager for an education company before she retired. “But nothing O’Malley has done has made an impression on me.”

In The Post poll, 40 percent say they think O’Malley has done a good job on making college more affordable. Fifty percent, including Greene, say he has not.

O’Malley has presided over record funding levels for Maryland public schools, despite having to make cutbacks elsewhere during the recession. Still, only 42 percent in the poll say O’Malley has done a good job on school funding, while 49 percent say he has not.

Among the latter, Robin Cross, 31, does not have children and acknowledges that she does not know a lot about what O’Malley has done. But Cross, a Democrat who said she works for the federal government and military, said she “can’t see anything that’s happening.”

“I just look around the neighborhood and see kids running amok,” said Cross, a Laurel resident.

O’Malley receives some of his lowest marks on balancing the state budget (40 percent say he has done a good job) and handling state taxes (39 percent).

O’Malley has largely deflected questions about whether he has ambitions beyond Maryland. But the poll suggests most Marylanders do not see him as a presidential contender at this point.

Lucy Ann Bechill, a retired librarian in her 80s who lives in Kensington, said she has nothing against O’Malley. She likes the bills he is pushing on gun control and repealing the death penalty.

But for her, Clinton is an easy first choice for president. “I think she’s done a wonderful job as secretary of state, and I’d like to see a woman elected,” said Bechill, a Democrat, adding that O’Malley “has not been working on the national scene.”

Largely for that reason, if Clinton does not run, Biden would be her second choice.

Scott Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill and Kimberly N. Hines contributed to this report.