Martin O'Malley meets Friday with Scott County Democrats for their "Red, White and Blue Dinner" in Davenport, Iowa. (John Schultz/Quad City Times via AP)

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley stepped up his critique of Wall Street excesses here Friday as he began his first swing through Iowa this year with a populist speech to an enthusiastic crowd of close to 300 people attending a Democratic dinner.

O’Malley, who is aggressively positioning himself as an alternative to presumed Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, said that his party “must not allow another Wall Street meltdown to bring down hard-working families.” In a speech broadcast live on C-SPAN, he called for tougher sanctions on banks that break the law and for reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era measure that separated commercial and investment banking.

Many left-leaning Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), argue that the act’s repeal in 1999 under President Bill Clinton contributed to the 2008 global credit crisis. If O'Malley is to gain traction against Hillary Clinton, one key will be successfully courting Democrats who have been pining for Warren to run for president  something she has insisted she has no plans to do in 2016.

During O'Malley's appearance at the Scott County Democrats' “Red, White and Blue Dinner,” he offered a prescription for “making the dream true again” that includes raising the minimum wage, expanding Social Security benefits, making pre-kindergarten universally available and ensuring equal pay for women. “Sing it with me people,” O’Malley said. “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

The speech, which drew multiple standing ovations, both underscored O’Malley’s opportunities and the challenges in the nation’s first presidential nominating state, where early polls show Clinton with a commanding lead and O’Malley barely registering. In interviews afterward, many Democratic activists said they were only starting to learn about O’Malley.

“I haven’t really followed him all that closely, but I’m going to be looking at him a lot harder now,” said Ken Krayenhagen, a 56-year-old chiropractor who lives in Davenport. “I like a leader that’s inspiring.”

O’Malley has said he plans to make a decision about whether to move forward with a presidential bid by May. Clinton has yet to visit Iowa this year but is hiring staff and laying other groundwork here and in other early states.

O'Malley's appearance in Davenport was a homecoming of sorts. He cut his teeth in politics working on Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential bid, spending much of his time in eastern Iowa. As O'Malley has mulled his own White House bid over the past two years, he has poured resources into the state, appearing at 24 campaign events and fundraisers for other Democrats, lending 14 staffers to Democratic candidates and the state party and donating more than $40,000.

O’Malley’s two-day swing through Iowa continues Saturday with appearances in Tipton and Council Bluffs. While in the Davenport area Friday, he had a private lunch with the city’s mayor, Bill Gluba, a big supporter of Barack Obama in 2008, and met privately with representatives of a local union. Gluba, who attended Friday’s dinner, said he is keeping an open mind about 2016 but thought O’Malley “hit it out of the park” with his speech.

Following the address, O'Malley mingled with a few dozen activists from the audience at an Irish bar. O’Malley’s arrival Friday coincided with the publication of an op-ed in the Des Moines Register calling for a greater commitment by his party to Wall Street reforms. “Today, most Republicans in Congress are hell-bent on disassembling the Dodd-Frank Act,” O’Malley wrote, referring to the 2010 law that was intended to help lessen the risk of another financial crisis. ”And too many Democrats have been complicit in the backslide toward less regulation. Seven years after the Wall Street meltdown, Americans are still experiencing the fallout.”