If nothing else, the failure of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to gain traction with his campaign has proved that the 2016 Democratic presidential race isn’t a beauty contest.
Mr. O’Malley, who built his campaign upon his youthful appeal and a call for a new generation of leadership, entered the race two months ago as one of the more telegenic and promising long-shot competitors to challenge front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination.
But he hasn’t been able to break out from the back of the pack.
The 52-year-old former Baltimore mayor and occasional frontman for an Irish folk rock band has remained mired in the low single digits in the polls and unable to draw big crowds when he stumps in Iowa and New Hampshire.
He also has been eclipsed by the curmudgeonly Sen. Bernard Sanders, 73, a Vermont independent and avowed socialist who has surged in the polls as he trumpets a far-left agenda of fighting Wall Street, income inequality and climate change.
A Fox News poll last week showed Mr. O’Malley with just 1 percent support among Democratic voters nationwide, while Mr. Sanders rose to 15 percent and Mrs. Clinton remained far in front with 61 percent.
Mr. O’Malley hasn’t fared much better in early-voting states, garnering 2 percent in recent polls of Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Mr. Sanders has broken the 20 percent mark and cut into Mrs. Clinton’s lead.
“He lacks the fiery, offbeat appeal of Bernie Sanders. But frankly, O’Malley’s biggest problem, in a word — Baltimore,” said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist for the Potomac Group, an independent polling and consulting firm in Washington.
The race riots that erupted in Baltimore in April impugned Mr. O’Malley’s legacy in Maryland, especially his tenure as the city’s mayor. His zero-tolerance policing policies as mayor in the 2000s, which helped stem rampant crime and a high homicide rate, were even blamed with causing the tension between police and black residents that led to the riots.
The O’Malley campaign insisted that they are still on track and not panicking.
“We’re not worried about polls because Gov. O’Malley is doing exactly what he needs to do — introducing himself and his vision for rebuilding the American dream through old-fashioned retail politics,” said O’Malley campaign spokeswoman Haley Morris.
She pointed to Mr. O’Malley’s long record of implementing liberal policies that rival those championed by Mr. Sanders.
“As governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley delivered one of the most progressive agendas in the country. He is the only candidate with 15 years [of] executive experience getting results — from signing into law marriage equality, the Dream Act and gun control reform to tackling climate change by reducing greenhouse gases by 10 percent and creating new jobs,” said Ms. Morris.
Mr. O’Malley got some encouragement from veteran Democratic campaign consultant Joe Trippi.
“Way too early to count O’Malley out,” he said. “The reality is that someone will emerge as the challenger to Clinton. Right now Sanders is the one that is garnering attention, and that may hold. But if O’Malley finishes ahead of Sanders in Iowa, that will now be the big surprise.”
“Can he do it? Well, it would not be a surprise if everyone thought it was possible,” said Mr. Trippi.
Signaling their growing frustration, Mr. O’Malley and his supporters have intensified his attack on the competition.
A super PAC supporting Mr. O’Malley put out a video last week slamming Mr. Sanders for being soft on gun control, an issue where Mr. O’Malley regularly touts his record of singing one of the strictest laws in the country to ban military-style rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips.
“Bernie Sanders is no progressive when it comes to guns,” says a narrator in the video.
Mr. O’Malley also went after Mrs. Clinton with a jab about mishandling the Arab Spring revolution in Libya and the subsequent deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
“We must recognize that there are real lessons to be learned from the tragedy in Benghazi: Namely, we need to know in advance who is likely to take power — or vie for it — once a dictator is toppled,” he said in a speech at the Truman National Security Project in Washington.
“Twitter and Facebook are no substitute for personal relationships and human intelligence,” he said, taking another veiled swipe at Mrs. Clinton, who has prided herself on utilizing social media.
Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state in 2011 when she strongly backed U.S. military support of the rebellion that toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country later devolved into an Islamic militant hotbed, leading to the 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as well as helping fuel the rise of the terrorist army that calls itself the Islamic State.