Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, right, talks with Abu Timbo, of Cedar… (Charlie Neibergall/AP )
Monica McCarthy was at Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry in September, a big Iowa Democratic shindig, and she remembers the featured speaker, the governor of Maryland, the handsome guy in blue jeans who gave her an autograph.
His speech was pleasant enough, recalled McCarthy, chairwoman of Iowa’s Union County Democratic Party, but could have used “some polish.”
“He needs fire in the belly if he wants to be president,” she said.
What was his name again?
“Deval Patrick? . . .” McCarthy said, mistakenly invoking the Massachusetts governor. “Oh damn . . . Mike McNally? An Irish name?”
His name is Martin O’Malley, and he hasn’t said much about what he’ll do when his term as Maryland’s governor expires in two years, even as pundits and politicos have promoted him as a presidential contender in 2016.
Just focusing on my job, the governor likes to say, eager to add that the attention is all very flattering. Or he deflects the question, as he did in New Orleans on Super Bowl weekend, when he told “CBS This Morning” that the next election is “a long way away.”
And yet: There was O’Malley at Iowa’s steak-fry version of a political coming-out party. And there he was in New Hampshire for its statewide convention. There he was at the Democratic National Convention last summer, speaking from the podium during prime time. There he is on such talk shows as “Meet the Press,” regularly smacking Republicans.Esquire magazine recently highlighted him (“What It Takes, Now”), as did the Atlantic’s Web site (“Forget Paul Ryan, Martin O’Malley Has the Best Abs on the Hill”).
Of course, the next presidential election is almost four years away, but the reality of modern campaigning is that it starts when election night hangovers end — a marathon of trips to Iowa and New Hampshire and meet-and-greets with fundraisers and media consultants, all to build a national brand.
If Democrats are pushing gilded names such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden, Republicans are promoting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
But politics is also defined by uncertainty and ever-changing terrain — “Will Hillary run?” may be the question of the moment — leaving potential openings for less prominent candidates such as Maryland’s governor.
Each stage of the process has its own audience. At this point, it’s expected that potential candidates will be familiar — or at least recognizable — to the people who matter: the county party chairmen, the local activists, the insiders who serve as delegates to the national convention.
Whatever the calculus, O’Malley fever is not exactly overtaking the all-important climes of Iowa and New Hampshire, if a thoroughly random survey of Democratic chieftains bears any resemblance to reality.
Yes, there are those who know of O’Malley, that he’s a governor, that he’s well-spoken and even that he plays in a Celtic rock-n-roll band.
But there are those such as Dale Creech, 62, a retired factory worker who is chairman of Iowa’s Dallas County Democratic Party, who are flummoxed by a mention of the governor. “I heard the name,” Creech said, “but off the top of my head, I couldn’t tell you which party he belongs to.”
What has made an impression on Jan Bauer, chairwoman of Story County’s Democratic Party committee in Iowa, is that the O’Malley “has shown interest and that he’s not backing away. I predict we will see much more of Governor O’Malley in the next few years.”
But, she added, “people mention Hillary, and they mention Biden. It’s the high-profile folks who get the chatter right now.”
The governor’s name is not exactly ricocheting around the South, either.
Dick Harpootlian, head of South Carolina’s Democratic Party, recalled that the “pleasant reception” O’Malley got at a breakfast with state delegates at the Democratic convention was far tamer than the one they gave Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who “knocked it out of the park.”
“I don’t think anyone came out on fire over Martin O’Malley,” Harpootlian said. “They’re ambivalent, at best. At worst, they don’t know who he is.”
O’Malley’s passion for politics has been obvious since college, when he volunteered for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign, on through his successful race for the Baltimore City Council in 1991. He was Baltimore’s mayor from 1999 to 2006, when he was elected governor.
Maryland has never been known as a glide path to national office, not unless you count Spiro T. Agnew (R), who in three years went from executive of Baltimore County to governor to vice president, a job from which he resigned in disgrace. O’Malley’s immediate predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), practiced law after leaving Annapolis. Parris N. Glendening (D) went to work for a think tank. After he was governor, William Donald Schaefer (D) became state comptroller.