DAVENPORT, Iowa — Again and again, the activists jumped to their feet, cheering on such promises as breaking up big banks, reining in Wall Street’s “reckless gambling” and addressing the country’s “gross concentrated wealth.”
They might have been listening to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose populist crusade on income equality, health care and Social Security have prompted legions of liberal Democrats to try to draft her into a bid for the presidency.
But the speaker was Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who spent the weekend stumping across Iowa.
As O’Malley positions himself to challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he is competing for support not only with the former first lady and secretary of state but with Warren, a onetime Harvard law professor whose devotees haven’t given up on a White House bid despite her repeated pledges that she is not running.
For O’Malley, the advantage of wooing Warren supporters was clear as he spoke to big and small crowds on his first visit to Iowa this year: They are among the most energized Democrats, and they are hungry for an alternative to the more centrist Clinton. What was less clear is whether O’Malley, who barely registers in most polls, will become their natural fallback if Warren stays out.
“I’m not sure if Elizabeth Warren doesn’t run where people will look,” said Mike Carberry, a Johnson County supervisor who was among 16 Democratic party leaders in Iowa to recently sign a letter urging Warren to run. “What I do know is that I want an open and honest debate of the issues in the caucuses, and I want to support a progressive candidate for president.”
Over the same weekend when the Boston Globe editorial page urged Warren to run because Democrats “need” her voice in the race, many activists said they are unready to give up on her.
In the basement of the Cedar County courthouse in Tipton, where O’Malley spoke to about 40 Democrats, two young women offered Warren signs, buttons and stickers at a “Run Warren Run” table at the back of the room.
One of them, Veronica Tessler, 29, didn’t recognize O’Malley when he arrived but said he gave a decent presentation. Asked if she could see herself supporting him if Warren doesn’t run, she demurred.
“I think it’s way too early to be talking about that,” said Tessler, who owns a frozen yogurt shop in Iowa City. “Right now, we’re 100 percent focused on getting Senator Warren to run. I haven’t seen anyone who inspires me the way Senator Warren does. She’s real. She’s authentic. She’s powerful.”
Tessler said she had not been politically active since Obama’s run for president in 2008 and was drawn back in only because of Warren.
O’Malley’s aides deny that he is making a concerted push to pick off Warren supporters. But his appearances Friday and Saturday in the nation’s first presidential caucus state were striking for their Warren-esque populism — and for the cheering reactions he prompted.
O’Malley’s arrival Friday in Davenport coincided with the publication of an op-ed he had penned in the Des Moines Register, which blasted “Wall Street’s reckless behavior” and urged several steps to prevent a financial meltdown akin to the one in 2008.
And in a string of appearances from Davenport to Council Bluffs, O’Malley peppered his speeches with lines about standing up to the big banks and protecting middle-class consumers. In one speech, he offered a prescription for “making the dream true again” that includes expanding Social Security benefits and ensuring equal pay for women.
“Sing it with me, people,” O’Malley said. “When women succeed, America succeeds.”
He also bemoaned the fact that last year, Wall Street bonuses alone were double the combined earnings of every single American working for minimum wage.
“Until we solve this problem, we cannot rest, as a party or as a people,” O’Malley told close to 300 people at the Scott County “Red, White and Blue Dinner.” “Our nation’s future is at stake.”
O’Malley also touted his tenure as governor, which included a long list of progressive wins such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, sweeping gun-control legislation, repeal of the death penalty, an increase in the minimum wage and several measures aimed at helping immigrants.
Asked this weekend about echoes of Warren in his speeches, O’Malley said there is a “candor” and a “truthfulness” to the Massachusetts senator’s point of view. He said he shares much of that point of view and believes it should play a big role in the Democratic nominating process.
“What people are longing for is an understanding of how our economy got to the point where wealth and power are so concentrated in ways it never was before,” he said.
Early polling — and interviews with scores of activists — underscore how much work remains for O’Malley to become better known in early nominating states, including Iowa.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed Clinton with a formidable lead among likely Iowa caucus participants, drawing 61 percent support. Warren was second, with 19 percent. O’Malley was the choice of less than 1 percent.
As the activists awaited O’Malley’s arrival in Tipton, representatives of Run Warren Run and groups encouraging other Democratic candidates were given a chance to speak.
Beth Farvour, who represented Run Warren Run, said she got goose bumps as she watched Warren’s 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Warren’s message resonates even more for Farvour because she has student loans to pay off from college.
“The banks are making money off me,” Farvour said. “The system is rigged.”
Marc Franke, a retiree from Cedar Rapids, seemed more impressed with O’Malley. The author of a blog on climate change, Franke said he was pleased to hear O’Malley bring the subject up in his remarks.
“Please do run,” Franke told him afterward. A few moments later, he ventured back to the Run Warren Run table to talk to the two women staffing it.
“I think Hillary would make a good president, but I’d like to have more choices,” Franke said. “I think we could have stronger candidates than Hillary, and [O’Malley] might be one of them. But I’d like to see Elizabeth Warren run, too. It would be great to have a woman as president.”
Warren’s presence also loomed as O’Malley took questions from reporters before his departure.
“Your populist, progressive message isn’t too different from Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, who’ve been in Iowa and fired up crowds,” one local reporter asked him. “Your delivery hasn’t really fired many people up yet.”
“Were you there last night?” O’Malley asked, interrupting her. “Plenty seemed plenty fired up then.”
He was referring to his speech in Davenport, which drew multiple standing ovations and some gushing reviews from activists who hadn’t seen O’Malley speak before.
That included Ken Krayenhagen, 56, a chiropractor from Davenport, who said he found O’Malley’s speech inspiring in a way he wasn’t expecting.
“I haven’t really followed him all that closely, but I’m going to be looking at him a lot harder,” said Krayhagen.
Asked what he thought of Warren, Krayhagen lit up even more.
“I really like her. I really like her,” Krayhagen said. “I like the way she puts truth to power. If she runs, she’d definitely be up there as someone I’d like to support.”
Carberry, the Johnson County supervisor, said he thinks O’Malley has the potential to become the dominant alternative to Clinton if Warren doesn’t run — but he’ll have to become better known.
He said O’Malley’s op-ed in the Des Moines Register on Wall Street reforms was a good start.
“That was a brilliant move,” Carberry said. “I read it. I loved it, and I re-posted it on Facebook. To me, that’s a good sign.”
For now, though, Carberry remains hopeful that Warren will run.
“I know she’s said she wouldn’t run, but at first she said she wouldn’t run for Senate either,” Carberry said. “So we’ll see.”