BEDFORD, N.H. — After taking a swipe at Hillary Rodham Clinton on national television over the weekend, Martin O’Malley offered a softer sell here Tuesday as he appeared at a breakfast considered a rite of passage for potential presidential candidates.
The Democrat told a crowd of more than 150 people attending a “Politics & Eggs” forum about his upbringing in “a mid-size Irish Catholic family” of six children, about his achievements as Baltimore’s mayor and Maryland’s governor and about his belief that national leaders need to address wage stagnation and more aggressively regulate Wall Street.
At no point during his 22-minute address — or during a handful of questions that followed from an audience that included local business leaders — was there a mention of Clinton, the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
It was only when O’Malley later appeared before a gaggle of reporters that there was any reference to his comment Sunday that the presidency is “not some crown to be passed between two families” — a line widely seen as a knock against Clinton (and Republican Jeb Bush). When asked about it, O’Malley, who is making his second visit to New Hampshire this year, didn’t seem all that eager to talk about the former first lady and secretary of state.
“I’m not against any person,” O’Malley told reporters. “I’m for what’s best for our country. I’m for what’s going to make our economy work again for all of us. … We have a pretty robust debate going on in one party, and I think that our country would be very well-served by asking the questions: What are the things we’ve done that have worked? And what are the things that we have yet to do or that we have failed to do that we need to change? That’s what I'm going to be about.”
Pressed for contrasts with Clinton, O’Malley later ticked off several issues on which he said his stands were clear, including the handling of the wave of migrant children coming across the border from Central America last summer.
“I believe that when refugee kids arrive on our doorsteps fleeing death, that we don’t pen them up and then send them back to death camps, that we act like the compassionate and giving and generous people that we have always been,” said O’Malley, who reiterated that he plans to decide sometime this spring whether to move forward with a White House bid.
He passed — as he has before — on a chance to criticize Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail address to conduct business while secretary of state.
“I’ve kind of said whatever I'm going to say on the e-mails,” O’Malley said. “I’m much more concerned and I think people are generally concerned about how we can get wages going up again in our country after 12 years of wages going in the wrong direction.”
O’Malley’s appearance at the breakfast — sponsored by the New England Council and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College — coincided with the release of a poll that underscored the steep climb he has ahead if he is to become a credible challenger to Clinton.
In the Franklin Pierce-Boston Herald survey of likely 2016 Democratic New Hampshire voters, Clinton was the favorite of 47 percent, followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, with 22 percent. Trailing Warren, who has repeatedly said she is not running, were Vice President Biden, with 10 percent; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, with 8 percent; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with 4 percent; and O’Malley, with 1 percent.
“There’s only one way to go,” O’Malley told reporters when asked about the poll. “It doesn’t bother me.”
During the breakfast, O'Malley said that that national leaders need to do more to address college student debt.
“It’s outrageous that you can buy a home for a lower interest rate than you can get a student loan,” O’Malley said. “We need some very, very serious consideration to making it easier and to find a way to refinance a lot of the debt that kids are under today.”
While he pulled his punches against Clinton, O’Malley was more than willing to throw jabs at Republican-led Indiana, calling its new religious freedom law “reprehensible.” O’Malley also blasted GOP presidential hopefuls who have said they support it.
“I think it is shameful that presidential candidates in this day and age would try to give cover to a law — that is sweeping across a lot of Republican-governed states — that attempts to give license to discrimination of gay and lesbian people,” O’Malley told reporters. “It’s wrong. It’s not who we are as a people.’’
Republican lawmakers in Indiana are seeking to clarify the law, which grants individuals and businesses legal grounds to defend themselves against claims of discrimination.
O’Malley arrived in New Hampshire on Monday night and had private meetings in Concord and Manchester, according to aides. He has a series of private meetings Tuesday, including with technology-industry leaders at Dyn, a Manchester-based company, and with leaders of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
O’Malley is also scheduled to appear later Tuesday in Nashua for a happy hour with Young Democrats.