- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2015

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has a huge hill to climb in his presidential bid — so much so that his own New Hampshire campaign co-chairman’s wife is supporting his opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Challenges like that are making Saturday’s second Democratic primary debate, in Des Moines, a make-or-break moment for Mr. O’Malley.

It’ll be the first time he’s on stage alone with Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders after two other competitors dropped out last month. And the debate, airing on CBS, will give him his best opportunity yet to make the case that his time as Baltimore mayor and two terms as Maryland governor give him the best chance to beat Republicans.

“Martin O’Malley is the only person with 15 years of effective executive experience on either side of this race, and he needs to keep stressing this,” said Peter Burling, a former state senator in New Hampshire and Mr. O’Malley’s campaign co-chairman. “He needs to show the voters how his achievements are different and more impressive than his opponents. In looking at the Democratic field, he is the person most likely to win the general election.”

Mr. Burling says Mr. O’Malley is a Democratic Party loyalist, unlike Mr. Sanders, who runs as an independent in Vermont and describes himself as a socialist. And he said Mr. O’Malley has outlined more defined progressive policy measures than Mrs. Clinton, who can be a very polarizing figure nationally.

Still, the majority of his friends, and even his wife, are die-hard Clinton fans, and have questioned his sanity in supporting Mr. O’Malley, who is polling at 3 percent in the state, compared to Mrs. Clinton’s 48 percent in the most recent Monmouth University survey.

“I have not a negative thought or word for Madame Secretary — she is my wife’s candidate, she is the candidate of most of my Democratic friends, of most of my friends here in New Hampshire,” Mr. Burling said. “One of them asked me just yesterday why I continue to support O’Malley, and my concerns are the thoughts of winning the general election. There are some people who have such negative attitudes of her, regardless of her extraordinary capacities and extraordinary experience.”

So far, those concerns have not seriously dented Mrs. Clinton. She has retaken the lead in New Hampshire and dominates in Iowa, taking 55 percent support to Mr. Sanders‘ 37 percent, with Mr. O’Malley at 3 percent in the latest CNN/ORC survey — which has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.

Nationally, she leads by nearly 20 points, topping Mr. Sanders 52 percent to 33 percent, according to the New York Times/CBS News Survey released Thursday. Mr. O’Malley pulled in 5 percent support.

Mrs. Clinton also dominated the first Democratic debate, doing so well that two contestants dropped out of the primary shortly thereafter: former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Vice President Joseph R. Biden also took a pass on challenging her, and she turned in a strong performance before the congressional committee probing the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks.

Mr. O’Malley’s campaign says there’s time to make an impression.

“We’re in the compare and contrast phase of the campaign, and the governor is embracing the fight,” Haley Morris, Mr. O’Malley’s press secretary, said in a statement. “Governor O’Malley is making a forceful case for what sets him apart, and that’s a record of actions, not words.”

The campaign said his success in abolishing the death penalty, approving new gun controls and signing a state law granting in-state tuition rates at public colleges to illegal immigrants show he’s been able to lead on a progressive agenda — something they said differentiates him from his competitors.

“Governor O’Malley has always led with his principles to get results,” Ms. Morris said. “He is going to make the choice known.”

For many pundits, the race is Mrs. Clinton’s to lose. But if that loss occurs, it could be Mr. O’Malley’s gain.

“There’s enough questions out there with Hillary’s email server and sending and receiving of classified material that if her campaign were to implode [O’Malley’s] there as the elective alternative, so why not stick around to see if that happens,” said Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Still, it all depends on whether Mrs. Clinton stumbles and Democrats are forced to look beyond her.

“There’s precious little either [Mr. O’Malley or Mr. Sanders] can do actively to improve their chances — they are, at best, passive candidates,” Mr. Eberly said.

Analysts said Mrs. Clinton needs to turn in another impressive debate.

“She’s going to continue to face a lot of headwinds, congressional investigations on the Hill and other Republican candidates,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a Clinton supporter. “I’m confident she has the ability to pull it out, but now’s not the time to play it safe. There’s still a lot more selling to do.”

As for Mr. O’Malley, the strategist said he needs to prove something.

“He’s simply got to start demonstrating some forward momentum, and, if not, needs to consider another line of work,” Mr. Manley said. “He doesn’t have the staff; there’s not a lot of surrogates out there fighting for him. He has no significant campaign infrastructure or fundraising dollars, and he barely makes a dent in the polls or media, so it’s tough to justify [moving forward].”

Mr. O’Malley’s campaign goal has been clear: to outlast the other lower-tier candidates and try to create momentum in one of the early states. He has spent more time on the ground in Iowa than any other Democratic candidate this cycle, visiting 48 counties and aiming to hit all 99.

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, voters traditionally make up their minds closer to the primary, giving him a potential opening. Among the “die-hard activists,” Mrs. Clinton is doing very well, but among the people who actually show up to vote, there’s room for movement, Mr. Burling said.

Half of Democratic primary voters say it’s too early to say definitively which candidate they will support — though 54 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters say they’re locked on her, according to the latest Times poll.

“O’Malley never gives up and will go for it in the debate, so it’s very likely that he will have a good night,” said Craig Varoga, a veteran Democratic strategist who advised Mr. O’Malley during his 2010 re-election campaign for governor but is no longer working for him. “The challenge is that Clinton is a very accomplished debater, is very familiar with these formats and should also have a good night.”

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