ANNAPOLIS, Md. — His latest legislative achievements put him in the vanguard of his party’s liberal base. He’s been a top fundraiser for President Barack Obama. And he’s ramping up his travel to help fellow Democrats around the country.
Little-known outside his home state, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has methodically checked the necessary boxes toward earning the reputation of good Democratic soldier as he considers whether to run for president in 2016 — a White House bid that would face long odds.
It’s very early. Obama still has more than three years left in his presidency. And no one is officially in the race.
Yet, O’Malley already is overshadowed by the buzz surrounding the mere prospect of a Hillary Rodham Clinton candidacy. If not her, talk in Democratic circles turns to Vice President Joe Biden.
Despite the hurdles, the 50-year-old former Baltimore mayor is publicly undaunted.
On a trip to Israel last month to seemingly boost his foreign policy credentials, O’Malley disclosed publicly what had been arguably the worst-kept secret in Annapolis — that he would use the last half of this year to consider seeking the presidency. His Washington-area appearances at fundraisers Tuesday for Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and June 12 for Iowa Senate candidate Bruce Braley are certain to raise eyebrows even further given that the two candidates represent states that traditionally weigh in first in a Democratic primary.
While O’Malley is one of the few Democrats openly talking about succeeding Obama, aides say he hasn’t made any decisions about his political future. That includes whether he would run or not if Clinton, whom he endorsed and campaigned for during her 2008 race, decides to seek the nomination. Democratic insiders say the former secretary of state would be the heavy favorite should she launch a campaign.
A former head of the Democratic Governors Association, O’Malley is one of the party’s top fundraisers and made clear his national aspirations when he worked to raise more than $1 million for Obama’s re-election campaign, the most of any sitting Democratic office-holder.
Then, last fall, he headlined Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry — a must-stop for any presidential aspirant seeking to compete in the state’s traditional leadoff caucuses. He followed that up with a springtime speech to party activists in South Carolina, another stop in the early primary contests.
Aides say O’Malley, now the DGA’s finance chairman, will spend more time in places with active governors’ races in 2014 — states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida — giving him a way to court the party’s elite without the media glare of early primary states. He also is scheduled to address the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, on May 30.
Through it all, O’Malley will be overseeing implementation of his latest liberal legislative victories, new laws that would put him in lockstep with many party activists who play pivotal roles in primaries and caucuses.
He has successfully pushed through a measure to make Maryland’s gun laws among the toughest in the country. A key provision would make Maryland the first state in nearly 20 years to require people who buy handguns to provide fingerprints to the state police. O’Malley also scored long-sought victories that have eluded him in earlier years, including repeal of capital punishment and a bill to help develop offshore wind power in Maryland.
In November and on O’Malley’s watch, voters approved the state’s same-sex marriage law and a state version of the Dream Act, which allows immigrants living in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
The governor, whose second term ends in January 2015, boasts of a data-driven approach aimed at managing his state through budget cuts and tough economic conditions.
“Who we are and what we’re about is pretty clear and it makes it easier for people to accept some of those choices and some of those decisions,” O’Malley said in an interview during the legislative session that ended April 9. “We don’t expect many of them ever to be popular — whether it’s cuts or taxes. None of them are popular in isolation but as a whole it’s part of the better choices we need to make for better results. I think the people in our state understand that we’re better off than most.”
Throughout his tenure, Republicans have tried to tag him as someone who places his national ambitions ahead of the state and point to tax increases — he has raised taxes on the wealthy and boosted the state’s gasoline tax to pay for transportation projects — as a sign of what could come.
“Republicans would be thrilled to death to run against O’Malley if he became the nominee,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist.
And that’s a big if, judging by early polls that show him barely even registering.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, sees a bright side for O’Malley, saying he has positioned himself to run well in the presidential primaries by promoting an agenda that sits well with the party’s base.
“The good news is that he’s a great Democrat, and he’s a very progressive person and has put forth a very progressive agenda, and if that is what you believe in, then you’ll think he’ll make a great president,” Miller said. “So his principal detractors are those who have a much more conservative philosophy and so he has all the makings to win a Democratic primary.”
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