"What kind of technology experience do you have?" said the piped-in voice of the robot.
"I have lots of technology experience," said O'Malley. "Mostly on the campaigns."
The robot was silent. His electronic display did not move. His voice actor seemed as confused as passersby, who had been stage-whispering questions like "who is that?" and "is he famous?" as O'Malley worked the fair.
"You’re giving me kind of a flat effect," said O'Malley.
The robot changed the subject like a pro, telling O'Malley to listen to his kids, and campaign hard. Then the multi-armed organism of the press scrum moved on, to procure pork on a stick.
There are life cycles in insurgent presidential campaigns. First comes speculation about how they'd run, then speculation about they'd win, then the questions of why they're polling so poorly, then the stories of their resurgence. Some candidates, like 2012's Tim Pawlenty, do not live to cycle through this. O'Malley -- who, alone among Democrats is running a traditional barnstorming campaign -- may have had his sped up by the problems of Hillary Clinton. Both he and Jim Webb, the former Democratic senator from Virginia, flourished in the media shower of the Iowa State Fair. Both tried to plant a flag somewhere opposite Hillary Clinton -- with decreasingly subtle arguments about why Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) should not have that role to himself.
Webb, a laconic speaker who is waging only his second bid for office, arrived at the fair shortly before his 1 p.m. turn at the Des Moines Register's candidate soap box. He pointed out an old platoon mate in the crowd -- "a citizen of Iowa" -- then apologized for the brightness of the day, as "the first rule you learn in Marine Corps leadership is to never put your crowd’s face into the sun." Then he explained his support for the Keystone XL pipeline, his bipartisan outreach in the Senate, and his version of economic populism.
"If you look at the recession we endured," said Webb, "and you start in April 2009, when we started climbing back out of it, the stock market has almost tripled. It's gone from about 6,000 to 18,000. If you own stock, if you have capital assets, you’re probably doing well. If you’re not in the flow of capital, holding stocks and real estate, you're not doing so well. We need to make sure the American worker, who is the hardest, most productive in the world gets a share of this economy as we bring it back."
But Webb would not criticize any of his opponents. He referred obliquely to "the attention that the candidates who are more on the extreme are getting in the media." After his speech, hounded by a few reporters, he refused to comment on Hillary Clinton's ongoing email scandal, or the rumors of a Joe Biden presidential bid stoked by friends of the vice president.
After the speech, Webb worked his way quietly out of the fair, pursued by TV cameras, stopping only to sign copies of his book and a photo of a voter's soldier son. He insisted that he was having fun regardless.
"I actually saw one T-shirt that said: I'm not interested, I'm in it for the chicks," said Webb. "This is a fair. Everybody is selling something or going on a ride.
O'Malley threw himself into the fair life with more brio, peaking when he snapped a family selfie with the butter cow.
“Sixty days ago, when we got in, we were at one percent," he said. "After 30 days, we went to three. Latest poll has us at seven. And we’re going to keep going.”
At every turn, he met cameras attached to reporters who wanted to get his latest read on the competition. Unlike Webb, he had one.
Hillary Clinton? "There’s always an inevitable front-runner in the Democratic primary," O'Malley told one crew. "This is a choice between our past and a choice between our future."
Joe Biden? "I would welcome Vice President Biden’s entry into this race. He is a good and decent man who has served our country for decades."
Bernie Sanders? That one pulled O'Malley onto a limb. Asked if he thought the Democrats had a "problem" when a self-described democratic socialist sought their nomination, O'Malley disagreed, then worked his way into the affirmative.
"I don’t think it’s a problem for the Democratic Party, but it might be long-term for Sen. Sanders," he said. I believe that the Democratic Party has a tradition of offering pragmatic solutions to the problems that face us as a country. I am a lifelong Democrat, and I believe very deeply in the principles of our party. I believe in what Franklin Roosevelt was talking about and what John F. Kennedy was talking about. That’s why I choose to be a Democrat not just in presidential years but in every year of my life."
Asked if he was being squeezed out of the race, with Clinton on the right and Sanders on the left, O'Malley smiled wide.
"It's funny you see it like that," he said. "I see a whole lane opening."
O'Malley's own soap box speech had all the coiled energy that evaded Webb. His top two shirt buttons undone, his legs arching forward in what someone not running for president might call a yoga warrior stance, O'Malley boiled down the 15 goals of his potential presidency. He spent special time attacking "bad trade deals," a commonality with Webb and Sanders -- something Hillary Clinton could not agree with unless she flip-flopped. "China and India – they have countries of their own to invest in," said O'Malley,
After the speech, O'Malley went a little further, saying that China's recent devaluation of the Yuan looked to him like a sneaky manipulation. "I think we need to put much more pressure on the appropriate agencies, and take action on our own, to do the countervailing measures and impose the tariffs when those sort of things happen," he said.
Webb would not go so far. "On anything like that, we need to watch it, get the facts," he said. "Some have been saying that they want Chinese currency to follow the marketplace, and there are analysts who say that if that happened, the Yuan would go down. All of these complex issues, these economic issues, it’s best to watch the trend line and listen to your key advisers."
The two candidates found some space on another question: The name of Iowa's annual "Jefferson-Jackson" Democratic dinner. The party was planning to change it, new name TBD, after this year. O'Malley obliquely suggested that the party was making a good call.
"I’ve been to so many state party dinners," said O'Malley. "There’s a lot of different names. The important thing is that we honor the principles of our party. In Charles County, I think they call it the Truman dinner. I know that when I was in Minnesota it was named after local people. So it’s whatever honors the modern principles."
Webb, who wrote a whole book (Born Fighting) about the Scots-Irish, Appalachian populism that produced leaders like Jackson, was even more evasive. He would neither commend nor criticize the party if it erased the 3rd and 7th presidents.
“That’s up to them," he said. "Those are great presidents, but if people here want to name a dinner after something else, I don’t –"
Ed Fallon, a former state legislator, interrupted with an idea.
“How about the Roosevelt-Reagan dinner?” asked Fallon.
“That might get a big crowd,” said Webb.
He laughed his staccato laugh, and moved toward a less press-stricken area of the fair. Hillary Clinton would arrive two days later.