Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination, has spent the past week dealing with questions over her e-mails that have cast a shadow over her impending presidential campaign. Meanwhile, a potential challenger has been more visible in recent days. Martin O’Malley, the guitar-strumming former governor of Maryland has an opportunity to impress a political base that has up-until-now been largely committed to Clinton.
If he's to make any significant inroads, he has a huge uphill battle. O’Malley trails Clinton in the polls by massive margins. In the latest NBC News Poll, he registered at nearly 70 points behind Clinton among Democratic respondents.
“Am I really up to 11%,” O’Malley said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday morning, asking if his mom conducted the poll. The number referred to the percentage of Democrats who say they could support him.
While a Democratic coronation of Clinton, despite the latest controversy, is not out of the question, there are some in the party who would like to see otherwise - including O'Malley (obviously).
“Most years there’s the inevitable front-runner, and that inevitable front-runner is inevitable right up until he or she is no longer inevitable. So I think you’re going to see a robust conversation in the Democratic Party about how we restore our middle class,” O’Malley said on "Morning Joe."
O'Malley, like any candidate who hopes to jump in the race, hopes to be the spoiler of the inevitable. And if there's any time to make an impact, the time is now.
The campaign has not yet officially gotten underway. Assuming she runs, she would be starting her campaign under a shadow. It could cause potential donors to second guess and potential supporters to explore possibilities if there's a viable alternative.
O'Malley, meanwhile, has conveniently been seen more in the public realm since the Clinton email drama broke - partly because of consequence but partly because of opportunity.
“Most years there’s the inevitable front-runner, and that inevitable front-runner is inevitable right up until he or she is no longer inevitable. So I think you’re going to see a robust conversation in the Democratic Party about how we restore our middle class."
Just this week, the former Maryland governor has had a public appearance nearly every day. He spoke before a conference of firefighters and at a Washington think tank and appeared on “Morning Joe” - a noticeable uptick in his public appearances.
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His staff says the speeches have been planned for a month but admit that the press is reaching out more than they have in the past. An adviser close to the campaign said the number of requests for press credentials for his upcoming trips to Iowa and New Hampshire have “skyrocketed.”
“There’s a lot more press leading up to the events these days, and I think that’s where there’s an actual difference,” the adviser said since the time since the Clinton email controversy broke early last week.
While the O'Malley team is taking advantage of the increased interest in his campaign, he has chosen a specific strategy of avoiding bad-mouthing Clinton and not directly engaging in the email controversy. On Tuesday, when asked by NBC News hours before Clinton addressed the email concerns, he said did “not really” want to say anything about it. At an event the next day at the Brookings Institute when speaking about data-driven government, he said, “Frankly, I'm a little sick of the email drama.” And on Thursday, after being pressed several times on "Morning Joe," O’Malley acknowledged that following email protocol "would be important" but quickly moved to change topics. “Secretary Clinton is perfectly capable of addressing her own service in office,” he said.
O’Malley attempted to keep the discussion on his policy priorities. “More important than email policies would be making our economy work, getting wages to go up, indexing the minimum wage … and giving our kids a better life,” O’Malley said Thursday.
"You get more attention but you are not necessarily getting your message out."
O’Malley’s refusal to slam his potential Democratic opponent and stay on policy message is part of his strategy. But his adviser says that it's also a double-edged sword.
"You get more attention but you are not necessarily getting your message out," the adviser said.
O’Malley’s 15 years as an executive as a mayor and a governor, his populist message, progressive record and focus on the middle class is why he might be the perfect Democratic nominee on paper. But his refusal speak with lofty rhetoric could also be why he isn’t able to inspire the parts of the base that is searching for an alternative to Clinton.
”O’Malley actually is a serious player with a solid record — and he might well make a good president — but he’s campaigning as if he’s running to be Clinton’s EPA administrator or her OMB director,” columnist Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post.
O’Malley’s organization pushes back, saying that he received a standing ovation when speaking to the fire fighters and that he also received on in South Carolina last month during his speech to the state’s Democratic Party.
Jaime Harrison, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said O’Malley was warmly received in the state, adding that it was the first time many had heard him speak.
“There is a segment of the population that I think are interested in … looking at other candidates,” Harrison said. "There are a lot of folks in the south who are just want somebody who can embody the principles and the values of the Democratic party.... Part of the attraction of O’Malley's remarks is that is what he was saying."
The interested-in-other-candidates crowd exists in Iowa, too. The Iowa Democratic Party’s Cedar County Chairman, Larry Hodgden, has been courting Democrats and encouraging them to visit Iowa and potential run.
“I felt it would be good for the Democratic Party to have a robust nominating process,” Hodgden said, noting that O’Malley is coming to his small eastern Iowa county later this month.
Still, other possible Democratic challengers include Senator Elizabeth Warren who does inspire the base but has repeatedly said she has no plans to run in 2016. Vice President Joe Biden has traveled to early primary states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina in the past month but has done little to begin the work of a national campaign. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is making the early state circuit as well but his name recognition and polling is even lower than O’Malley’s. While former Virginia Senator Jim Webb has gone the furthers in the process by announcing his intent to run, he admitted Tuesday he’s not sure if he’s able to raise the necessary funds to compete.
While another Democrat could step up or the above mention could quickly ramp up an organization, the Clinton hole is for O'Malley to fill.