DES MOINES — Martin O’Malley was running a little late for 8:30 a.m. Mass. But he and a pair of aides managed to slide into a back pew without creating a stir.
Dressed in jeans and an Under Armour crew shirt, the Democratic presidential hopeful made eye contact with an infant whose car seat was perched on the pew in front of his. For the next 50 minutes, O’Malley sat quietly and took Communion, enjoying a rare period of solitude during his latest whirlwind swing through the nation’s first caucus state.
During the homily, the priest at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Catholic Church spoke of finding “the courage and the strength to live our faith.” His words weren’t aimed directly at O’Malley — in fact, no one in the church seemed to recognize the former Maryland governor and mayor of Baltimore — but they might as well have been.
Stuck in the single digits in the polls, O’Malley spent the summer trudging across about a third of Iowa’s 99 counties, without the fanfare of front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton or the large crowds of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the democratic socialist sensation. Over Labor Day weekend alone, O’Malley logged more than 600 miles as he hit nine campaign events, shaking hands with scores of likely caucus-goers.
O’Malley says he is guided by his faith in the political process here, one that tells him that if he just keeps going, he can win over enough Democrats between now and February to defy expectations and become a real factor in the nomination fight.
During a stretch when voters appear drawn to the angriest candidates, O’Malley has adopted a decidedly different persona. He is the happy warrior. Like Sanders, he laments the nation’s growing income inequality and job insecurity — but he almost always does it with a smile.
O’Malley tells jokes, some at his own expense. Unlike his better-known rivals, he lingers at events long enough to have conversations with many of the party activists who will determine his future.
Whether his persistence will pay off remains to be seen. During the most recent three days O’Malley spent in Iowa, there were signs of hope — but just as many reminders of how tall the mountain ahead of him remains.
“Look, I know there’s a lot of people who say to me, ‘You have some pretty big odds cut out for you, kid.’ ”
O’Malley was standing on folding metal chair as he spoke to about 200 people in a park lodge in Clinton, Iowa, above a stunning view of the Mississippi River.
“I kind of like tough odds,” O’Malley continued. “I’ve always been drawn to the tough fights. A tough fight is what tells me it’s a fight worth having.”
His seven-minute pitch included pledges to raise the minimum wage across the country, as he had in Maryland; to make it possible for students to attend college debt-free; to pass comprehensive immigration reform; and to make it easier for labor unions to bargain collectively. Each idea was met with applause.
There was no shortage of presidential politicking at the picnic, hosted by a labor group. Other 2016 Democratic campaigns had tables in the room and were handing out literature. O’Malley ventured outside as well, mingling with a group of adults who were gathered drinking beer.
One of the picnickers, Joe Bonte, wore three stickers on his striped polo: one each for Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley. His wife supports Clinton, he explained, while he is leaning toward Sanders. But he was intrigued to hear O’Malley, whom he had never seen before.
Bonte, 68, a part-time chemistry teacher at a community college, said he wasn’t sure whether there’s a path for the former Maryland governor.
“Some people think Sanders is too extreme — not me — and some people think Hillary has all the baggage,” Bonte said. “Some people are looking for something in the middle. So maybe O’Malley. Maybe.”
As he sped from Clinton to Tipton in a black SUV, O’Malley extended a freshly opened bag of beef jerky in the direction of Jake Oeth, the aide tasked with organizing Iowa for him and doubling that afternoon as his driver.
“Who’s your friend?” O’Malley said, pushing the bag toward Oeth.
The two had an easy rapport, with Oeth prepping O’Malley on what the next gathering would be like each time they rolled into town and reminding him of any attendees O’Malley should be certain to acknowledge.
The conversation turned to a waitress who had approached O’Malley at a hotel restaurant in Des Moines that morning while he was eating breakfast before Mass.
“She told me she’s for me,” O’Malley said.
Oeth, eager to build O’Malley’s database of supporters, asked the candidate to give him the waitress’s name. But O’Malley only remembered her first name.
Then it clicked: He had e-mailed a copy of a photo taken of the two of them to her, using his mobile phone, so he had her e-mail address. He forwarded it to Oeth.
The waitress was now certain to hear from the O’Malley campaign, part of the follow-up that is essential to the caucus process, to make sure supporters stay on board and actually participate on caucus night.
“My Iowa team is very, very good,” O’Malley told a reporter tagging along in the back seat, joking that the exchange was an example of building support “one plate of scrambled eggs at a time.”
He said he was convinced that the race was about to enter a new phase, where voters will be less motivated by the anger and frustration that he believes is behind the rise of Sanders on the Democratic side and Donald Trump on the Republican side.
“People never nominate angry, in either party, really,” O’Malley said. “I’m not intimidated by low numbers, as long as I see the signs on the road of what my instincts tell me is happening. I know it’s hard for people in Washington and New York to see just yet.”
About two dozen people were waiting at picnic tables set up on Larry Hodgden’s front lawn in the small town of Tipton when O’Malley’s SUV rolled up.
Hodgden is the Democratic party chair in Cedar County. He announced to the small crowd that he was endorsing the former governor for the Democratic nomination.
“He’s the man with the experience to be able to do the job,” Hodgden told his guests. “We need somebody with integrity in the White House.”
Hodgden’s was one of 17 endorsements the O’Malley campaign has rolled out during the past week. There were also five other county chairmen, two state legislators and a former congressman.
None had the name recognition of some of Clinton’s endorsers — a group that includes former senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) — but most were activists well known in their jurisdictions, with reputations for working hard on behalf of their preferred Democrats.
There was an awkward moment during the Sunday afternoon stop in Tipton. A local television reporter began his interview with O’Malley with this statement: “I think you should be doing better than you are.”
“Ah, thank you,” the candidate replied.
The next morning, at a popular pancake house in Jackson County, O’Malley made light of his standing in the race.
“Now I know when a candidate stands before you with 4 percent national name recognition who’s running for president, there’s a fine line between delusion and imagination,” he told the three dozen people who came to see him.
As the laughter died down, he added: “But I also know just how seriously you take your responsibility. . . . I’m in this to win this. I intend to win this.”
O’Malley fielded questions on an array of topics, including his philosophy on national security, his views on how to improve mental health services and his thoughts on what the balance should be between capitalism and socialism. The latter question was prompted by how well Sanders is doing in the race, the man who asked it said.
O’Malley said what the United States has now is “a sort of rigged capitalism,” where the big banks and other corporate interests have too much power. But, he added, “I don’t believe socialism is the way to go.”
Judy Collins, a 73-year-old nurse, said she appreciated that O’Malley is not a “table banger” like Sanders. Collins said she was impressed by the candidate’s “plans and thoughts” and said she had been leaning in another direction even before she drove from Davenport to hear him.
“I really intended to caucus for Hillary,” she said. “I don’t think she’d be a bad president. I don’t think Bernie would be a bad president, or Joe Biden if he gets in the race. But I heard something today that really grabbed me.”
Before leaving the state, O’Malley hit two Labor Day picnics, one in Dubuque, the other in Iowa City.
The Dubuque event drew a sizable number of Clinton supporters, judging from the stickers many participants wore. O’Malley gamely chatted and posed for pictures with many of them anyway.
Walt Pregler, the chairman of the Dubuque County Democrats, said his “dream ticket” would consist of Clinton for president and O’Malley for vice president.
“I don’t see any magic dust falling over Dubuque County and him emerging as the winner here,” Pregler said.
In Iowa City, Sanders seemed the most popular candidate, judging by the large number of picnic attendees wearing “Bernie for President” T-shirts. But the crowd applauded when O’Malley gave a talk in a picnic shelter, most enthusiastically when he called for overturning Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that has led to a flood of big-donor money in politics.
“I’d be proud to be your second choice,” O’Malley told retired law professor Nicholas Johnson, one of those in a Sanders shirt, after his talk.
“You have been all along,” Johnson replied.