Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at a news conference in Annapolis on March 15 after the Maryland General Assembly approved a measure to ban capital punishment. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

A year ago, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley recalls, his political situation was so dire that Hillary Clinton expressed sympathy.

The state legislature had adjourned messily without agreeing on a budget. O’Malley (D) was drawing blame for weak leadership.

“It looked like you were having a really great session right up until the train wreck,” O’Malley remembers Clinton telling him. She was visiting Annapolis for a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy.

How different it looks today.

O’Malley has scored an exceptional series of legislative victories. He’s made Maryland a national leader in what I’d call liberal policies but he prefers to call “progressive.”

“It’s not how low you go, it’s how high you bounce,” O’Malley said Friday in an hour-long interview in his office at the State House.

The session set to end serenely Monday approved four major measures that O’Malley championed: tighter gun controls, repeal of the death penalty, subsidies for wind power, and higher gasoline taxes to pay for mass transit and roads.

That adds to his achievements in November’s referendums, when voters approved same-sex marriage and low-cost college tuition for illegal immigrants.

In one sense, O’Malley’s accomplishments brighten his prospects for a possible run for the presidency in 2016 or beyond. He can boast of advances that warm the hearts of virtually every constituency among the activists who tend to vote in Democratic primaries.

Moreover, as he noted, he’s pushed social and environmental policies that appeal particularly to people under 35. Those happen to be voters whom an ambitious, 50-year-old politician could be wooing for a decade or two to come.

But the very scale of O’Malley’s success also poses a political challenge. He’s done so much, so quickly, to lead the state to the left that he risks being labeled as outside the mainstream.

O’Malley proved touchy about this in our conversation. He repeatedly disputed my suggestions that his record was liberal, saying such thinking was outdated. He faulted as “cruddy” a front-page article in Friday’s Washington Post saying recent Maryland laws represent a dramatic liberal shift.

“I’m not fundamentally ideological in my approach to governing. I’m not of that generation. My primary question in governing is, ‘Does it work?’ ” O’Malley said.

For instance, he said he opposed the death penalty because it’s “wasteful, inefficient, costs a lot of money and doesn’t work.” He favored same-sex marriage because “being exclusive and being discriminatory are bad for business, and bad for an innovation economy.”

When I asked the governor directly whether he was comfortable being described as a “liberal,” there was a long pause.

“Yes,” he said finally, drawing out the word. “I think, more accurate, I tend to think more in terms of progress, whether we’re moving forward or whether we’re moving back.”

There’s little question that O’Malley is in sync with young people on same-sex marriage and immigration. I’m less certain of his view that the rising generation also is more open than its elders to the need to raise taxes to fund needed government services.

“I think the younger generation understand better perhaps than some of us baby boomers . . . that you get what you pay for, and that you can’t live on credit cards,” O’Malley said.

He’d better hope he’s right. In 6 1 / 2 years in office, O’Malley has raised the sales tax and income taxes on the well-to-do, as well as numerous fees. Now he’s set to boost the levy on gasoline. The Maryland GOP portrays him in party literature as a pirate: “Pillaging and plundering your paycheck since 2007.”

O’Malley wouldn’t disclose his intentions about seeking the presidency but was quite open to the possibility. He’s required by law to step down as governor when his second term ends in early 2015.

O’Malley has visited Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which have early caucuses or primaries. He’s set up a national political action committee to raise money.

“I know that I’m not running again for state office, so whatever I do to travel and explore the next chapter is best done with a non-state PAC,” he said.

His decision could depend on who else runs. I doubt he’d challenge Hillary Clinton. He supported her 2008 bid, plus he wouldn’t stand a chance. But he might run against Joe Biden, even though the vice president is much better-known.

If the future of the Democratic Party is in the youth vote, then O’Malley could claim a 20-year generational advantage against the 70-year-old vice president. He’s built a record to make that pitch.

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