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Tonight’s Debate Is Martin O’Malley’s Big Chance

Democratic Debate: What To Expect 1:19

Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate presents a big opportunity for Martin O’Malley. While the former Maryland governor has failed to garner the same amount of attention that front runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have, this is his chance to make significant inroads in his bid for the presidency.

“There is nobody for whom the stakes are higher than Martin O’Malley,” Mo Elleithee, former communications director at the Democratic National Committee, said. “This is a make or break moment and if he doesn’t have a breakout moment,” then he’s going to have to reevaluate his campaign.

O’Malley entered the race as the progressive candidate, pitting himself against a more moderate Hillary Clinton. The unexpected entry and rise of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, however, has eclipsed O’Malley’s’ populist message.

O’Malley’s challenge is significant. Even in his own state of Maryland, O’Malley is polling at just 4 percent in the latest poll conducted by the Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. Clinton and Sanders are at 43 and 20 percent, respectively.

But O’Malley’s spokesperson, Haley Morris, said they see the debate as “an opportunity to make our case” and that it won't be his final chance to make inroads with the Democratic electorate.

“This is a fight that’s just getting started,” she added with the understanding that the first nominating contest is more than three months away.

Related: Like Clinton, Sanders Shifts Left On Key Issues

Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin is not backing anyone in the primary but he clearly laid out O’Malley’s challenge.

“There seems to be a place in Democratic presidential primaries for an establishment candidate. And there’s a place for a progressive reform candidate. Those two places are both occupied right now,” he said.

In an opinion piece in the New Hampshire Union-Ledger, O’Malley laid out a debate strategy that he hopes will appeal to both of those lanes by simultaneously knocking Clinton and Sanders. In the op-ed, he said he is a progressive – a critique of Clinton – and that he has put his plans into action – a critique of Sanders who has spent years in the unruly and inefficient Congress.

“My goals are grounded in a more just and forward-thinking vision for our country,” he wrote.

“Now, I am not the only candidate for President who holds progressive values — but I am the only candidate for president with 15 years of executive experience turning those progressive values into actions.”

It’s a nuanced argument that could be difficult to absorb, but he is expected to highlight specific progressive accomplishments as governor of Maryland, including raising the minimum wage, implementing the DREAM Act and signing gun safety legislation into law.

Bill Burton, a former spokesperson for President Barack Obama, said O’Malley’s message hasn’t resonated yet with the voters in early states given his standing in the polls.

“I don’t think he’s effectively made the case of why he is better suited to be president right now than Hillary Clinton. I’m sure he makes it everywhere he goes but given the fact that it’s not part of the conversation, he is not doing it in a way that is conducive to getting attention,” Burton said.

To do that, Elleithee said O’Malley will have the most difficult task Tuesday night. He must be assertive and prove his relevance. O’Malley’s low standing in the polls places him in a position that could reap huge benefits, but it’s also fraught with risk, he added.

“He also runs the risk of being the angry guy on the stage and no one votes for the angry guy,” he added.

In Iowa last week, O’Malley remained optimistic.

“I’m looking forward to this debate,” he said.