CONCORD, N.H. — As the media spotlight started to turn his way, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley left New Hampshire this weekend with a crucial question still unanswered about his 2016 political ambitions: Is he ready for Hillary?
During a two-day swing, O’Malley repeatedly deflected questions about Hillary Rodham Clinton and the burgeoning controversy over her use of personal e-mail while secretary of state, raising new doubts about his resolve to take on the Democrats’ heavy favorite.
“The world of 24/7 news is upon us,” said longtime New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, who supports Clinton but said he likes O’Malley and has encouraged him to increase his visibility in the state. “If these things move, you’ve got to move with them. You have to be straightforward with the press, and you have to address the news of the day.”
O’Malley, who has attracted new scrutiny as a possible Clinton alternative since the e-mail uproar began, broke his silence on the subject Friday during an appearance at a bookstore in Concord — but just barely.
Peppered with questions from reporters, O’Malley touted the virtue of transparent government but said he is unfamiliar with “the rules that govern the e-mail procedures on the federal level” and would leave it to others to judge Clinton, whom he said he likes and respects.
During a series of private meetings, including one with eight state senators and another with more than a dozen veteran party activists at a Manchester restaurant, participants said Clinton barely came up as O’Malley made his pitch, which focused primarily on middle-class economic anxiety, several participants said.
Asked during a television interview that aired Sunday about his “reluctance to engage” with Clinton, O’Malley noted that he and his wife plan to decide by spring whether he will move forward with a Democratic bid.
“If I were to enter this race, I think a lot of those distinctions would become very evident,” O’Malley told WMUR-TV host Josh McElveen before pivoting to talk about his view that Democrats need to focus on strong Wall Street reforms.
“On that issue and many other issues, I think differences will become apparent,” he said.
While many Democratic activists said O’Malley was generally well received, his New Hampshire trip strengthened the view with some who saw him that he has not figured out how — or is even unwilling — to take on Clinton, at least in the aggressive way that will satisfy an impatient national political class.
D’Allesandro said O’Malley has to be far more aggressive if he wants to be seen as a credible challenger to Clinton — and that means directly addressing the e-mail flap and the recent controversy over foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.
O’Malley aides say there is plenty in his public remarks to draw contrasts with Clinton. He has mentioned, for instance, his advocacy for granting driver’s licences to immigrants and his support for Wall Street reforms, and he has hinted at the generational difference between the two.
But the jabs have not been explicit — and have been lost on many in the room.
During an appearance Saturday night in Kansas — where O’Malley addressed a Democratic gathering following his swing through New Hampshire — he told reporters of his support for making driver’s licenses available for “not-yet-naturalized citizens so they can drive safely to and from work and get insurance.”
But O’Malley made no mention, as he spoke, of the fact that Clinton drew flak from Democrats during her 2008 presidential campaign for opposing such a measure in New York after appearing supportive.
Being more direct carries obvious upsides for O’Malley. Among the many hurdles he faces is convincing donors and activists that he is running to win rather than to raise his profile in hopes of securing a spot in a Clinton Cabinet or positioning himself for a future White House bid.
But in New Hampshire, at least, some of the Democratic activists who heard him speak found refreshing his efforts to pivot away from Clinton and talk about his own ideas.
Following O’Malley’s appearance at the Concord bookstore, which drew about 40 people — plus two dozen reporters and television cameras — several Democratic activists debated whether he should have spoken more forcefully about Clinton’s e-mail situation.
“We know the general thinking in politics is that if you don’t bash the other side, you can’t win,” said Lorrie Carey, a former state representative who helped organize the event. “People expected that he would be more critical, and that he wasn’t came as a surprise. It gave people pause. But I think he actually came out looking better for it.”
That view was echoed by Daniel P. O’Neil, who helped pull together a private gathering of about 15 activists to mingle with O’Malley later that night in the Puritan Backroom restaurant in Manchester.
Despite several trips to New Hampshire last year to campaign and raise money for other Democrats, O’Malley remains largely unknown among rank-and-file party activists and is barely registering in early polls. Part of the discussion at the Puritan was about how to build a following in the state.
“I think he should be talking about himself at this point,” O’Neil, a Manchester alderman, said. “The voters are more interested in what you’re going to do and not what the other guy hasn’t done. I think he needs to talk about Martin O’Malley.”
That is largely what O’Malley did at other events as well, including a fundraiser benefiting the New Hampshire Democratic Party that was held Saturday morning at the home of Chris Pappas, a member of the state’s Executive Council.
During a meeting O’Malley held earlier Friday with eight of the state’s 10 Democratic senators, the issue of Clinton’s e-mail did come up, D’Allesandro said. Others offered some thoughts on whether the controversy would hurt her. “The governor was just listening at that point,” D’Allesandro said.
O’Malley boosters argue that he is becoming more aggressive about drawing contrasts than some people realize.
On Friday, for example, when he called for the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era measure that separated commercial and investment banking, he told reporters: “That’s a very important issue that’s out there right now. I’m not sure where [Hillary Clinton] stands on it.”
The act was repealed in 1999 under President Bill Clinton. Some have argued that the repeal contributed to the global credit crisis.
Such lines have the potential to resonate with voters, said Robert Werner, a Concord city councilor who said he is prepared to support O’Malley if he runs. Clinton’s ties to Wall Street are among the strongest misgivings voters have about her, Werner said.