Democratic activists in early presidential nominating states say that new controversies swirling around Hillary Rodham Clinton have made them more eager than ever for alternatives in 2016.
The undercurrent of anxiety about Clinton’s vulnerabilities has grown in recent days with potentially damaging news of foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation and the former secretary of state’s use of private e-mail accounts to conduct official business.
But as they survey the landscape, few Democrats see other credible contenders.
“The problem is, there’s nobody out there who’s not Clinton who’s the equivalent of Barack Obama,” said Larry Drake, chairman of the Portsmouth Democrats in New Hampshire. “He was a fresh face . . . and he gave great speeches and he turned out to be electable.”
The angst among Democrats offers new evidence that opportunities remain for other candidates despite Clinton’s commanding lead in early polls. H. Boyd Brown, a member of the Democratic National Committee from South Carolina who supports former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, said Clinton will not wear well as Democrats are exposed to a continuing drumbeat of press scrutiny.
“Nobody down here wants a coronation,” Brown said. “We need options. Who knows what could happen. It’s always good to have more than one candidate running.”
“Those aren’t some tabloid scandals,” he said of the Clinton controversies. “Those are job-related, national-security-related issues that matter.”
As he heads to New Hampshire this weekend, O’Malley is accelerating efforts to try to step into that breach. But in South Carolina last weekend and through a spokeswoman this week, O’Malley again declined to talk about Clinton — or articulate why Democrats who have already lined up behind her should start taking a closer look at him.
“Regardless of what other candidates do, for my own part, I believe the way that this is supposed to work is that if candidates feel they have ideas that will move our country forward, they should make a decision based on that,” he said in South Carolina. “And then the people will decide once they get a chance to evaluate those ideas and those candidacies, which one best serves these times and our nation.”
Still, O’Malley provided fresh evidence this week that he is serious about becoming the alternative to Clinton by announcing that he won’t pursue a safer bet in 2016: an open Senate seat in Maryland.
And last weekend, for the first time, he threw a few veiled jabs at Clinton in a populist speech that was warmly received by Democrats in South Carolina, the leading presidential primary state of the South.
Though O’Malley did not mention Clinton by name, he said that “triangulation,” a term for compromise with Republicans coined during Bill Clinton’s administration, is no longer “a strategy that will move America forward.”
Others who’ve met with O’Malley say he is trying to subtly push a message about the need for a generational shift in leadership. O’Malley is 52; Clinton is 67.
Despite the strong view among activists who heard him that a Clinton nomination is inevitable, O’Malley left South Carolina with some reason for optimism: His audience liked him and even gave him a standing ovation after remarks that recounted a litany of progressive achievements as Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor.
Bob Noe, a retired public television producer who was in the audience at the issues conference where O’Malley spoke, said he was impressed with all O’Malley had accomplished. And while there is a good deal of enthusiasm for Clinton in his state, “there’s a lot of worry, too,” he said.
Ashlynn Polanco, a senior at the University of South Carolina, said she was “truly inspired. . . . Honestly, after the speech, and seeing how much energy he has, I’m really hopeful he’ll run.”
Polanco, along with some fellow College Democrats, had a chance meeting with O’Malley on his way into the event. They snapped photos and talked about immigration.
“We’re young. We’re students in college,” Polanco said. “We may not be the most important people, but he wanted to hear what we had to say.”
O’Malley appears to still be wrestling with how aggressively to take on Clinton. Aides said his main objectives are trying to become better known in early nominating states and build a fundraising network.
In South Carolina, O’Malley took a pass when asked how Clinton might affect his plans on whether to move forward with a 2016 bid. This week, he declined through a spokeswoman to talk about the foundation and e-mail controversies.
During last month’s Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington, O’Malley set up a series of meetings at the Dubliner, an Irish pub off Capitol Hill, with party chairmen and other members in town from early nominating states.
One party leader who met him said O’Malley noted that Clinton was also seen as an “unbeatable monolith” in 2008 but focused more on how he wants to run as a “proud progressive” who governed his state well in tough fiscal times. The Democrat spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a private conversation.
Clinton boosters say they have little to worry about at this point — although some said that a competitive primary season would make her stronger heading into what is certain to be a bruising 2016 general election.
Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a supporter of Vice President Biden, said he talked privately with O’Malley in recent weeks and did not fully understand the rationale for his candidacy.
“The subtext is he was a governor, and he knows how to get things done, and he brings a fresh approach,” Harpootlian said. “That’s an interesting message, but he’s going to have to come up with something that’s more inspirational and moves the base.”
Similarly, Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee national chairman from South Carolina, said the speech last weekend made it clearer to him that O’Malley is inclined to challenge Clinton — but he wasn’t sure to what end.
“That begs a lot of psychological and personality analysis of whoever might think about running against her,” Fowler said. “If Hillary runs, I don’t see any realistic path for anyone. I hate to be so blunt.”
But if O’Malley moves forward with a bid — he has said he will decide by spring — “that’s fine,” Fowler added. “I think that’s good for the Democratic Party.”
Not all Democratic veterans are convinced of the value of competitive primaries.
Former senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who declined to run for president in 2008 in the face of Clinton’s first bid, said primary contests can help a rookie candidate improve but that a battle-tested front-runner like Clinton doesn’t need the test.
“If it was someone who just kind of emerged and hasn’t been tested, I might feel differently,” Bayh said. “I think you should call Mitt Romney and ask him” whether a long primary helped his 2012 bid.
Bayh said he expects other candidates to get in the race despite Clinton’s dominance, if only to make a point and nudge the debate to the left. “But I don’t think at this point there will be a credible challenge.”
Others eyeing possible runs for the Democratic nomination include former Virginia senator James Webb and Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont who has been more active on the trail in recent weeks than any of his counterparts.
Other activists said neither the Clinton Foundation nor e-mail stories have really resonated with Democrats in their states.
Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire party chairwoman, dismissed them as “Washington-based stories” and said “people care about real issues: the economy, jobs, college tuition and health care.”
Scott Brennan, the former Iowa Democratic Party chairman, said the winner of his state’s first-in-the-nation’s 2016 caucuses is hardly a foregone conclusion at this point. He said he’s given Clinton the same advice as other potential candidates: They need to get out there and start organizing.
“Since Hillary Clinton isn’t really doing anything out here, the field is wide open for other candidates to come in,” said Tom Henderson, chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa.
On Friday, O’Malley is scheduled to address a Democratic event in Concord, N.H.
Among those planning to be in the audience is Rob Werner, a longtime Democratic activist and Concord city council member. He said he is hopeful that the 2016 primary will be in keeping with New Hampshire tradition.
“People in New Hampshire want and expect candidates to be in good number and kick around ideas,” he said.
Dan Calegari, a longtime New Hampshire activist who is helping make introductions for O’Malley, said he thinks “the Hillary e-mail flap” is being overblown by the news media and will turn out to be no more than “a tempest in a teapot.”
But given his preferred candidate is barely registering in early polls, it’s not an unwelcome development. “It does generate more interest in Martin and others that might be getting in, so I guess that’s a good thing,” Calegari said.
Reid Wilson contributed to this report.