IOWA CITY — Martin O’Malley makes his way to the back of a crowded pub on a rainy night. He grabs a chair and climbs up.
“I’m running for president of the United States and I need your help,” he says, holding his right hand on his chest. He promises not to talk long. “We are going to do Q&A because that is the Iowa way.”
For O’Malley the Iowa way is the only way. The former Maryland governor’s narrow path to the Democratic nomination hinges on persuading people at this bar and in homes across the state to support him in the caucuses seven months from now, longtime advisers and donors agree. A strong second, or even an upset, is possible here in a way that isn’t in the cards anywhere else.
He knows it, too; that’s why he and a crew of staff piled into a white sport utility vehicle and drove at breakneck speeds past rain-soaked farms from event to event last week. Even though O’Malley’s name remains unfamiliar to many Iowans, and he still barely registers in that state’s polls, political elites have talked of an O’Malley presidential run since his early days as Baltimore’s mayor.
Still, the already faint track to victory for him in 2016 has been muddied recently by several factors out of O’Malley’s immediate control.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has vacuumed up voters on the left who are skeptical of Hillary Rodham Clinton, landing him in the valuable second-place berth here that could ignite a candidacy. And riots in Baltimore beamed some of America’s most hopeless neighborhoods into homes across the country, undercutting O’Malley’s message of progress in that city.
Both of these issues came up at campaign events in Iowa last week, and O’Malley stayed resolute in a commitment to keep showing up in the state and take sometimes uncomfortable questions. When asked at his third press conference of the day how much time he plans to spend here he said: “As much time as I possibly can.”
The trip to Iowa was O’Malley’s 10th since January 2014. He has made eight trips to New Hampshire — including one Saturday — and four trips to South Carolina in the same time period.
A super PAC supporting O’Malley’s candidacy has so far run TV ads in three cities, all of them in Iowa. The campaign opened a Des Moines office the day O’Malley announced his presidential campaign (it’s the only one he has outside Baltimore). Last week, he had about a half-dozen Iowa staff and volunteers collecting e-mail addresses and passing out “O’Malley for president” stickers.
Still, O’Malley’s late start — his May 30 announcement was six weeks after Clinton and a month after Sanders — means he missed a critical window where he could have soaked up news coverage in the state.
Clinton’s campaign was always going to be an oxygen-sucking bonfire, but Sanders used his headstart on O’Malley to define himself, in the absence of an Elizabeth Warren candidacy, as the liberal alternative. The Vermont senator got three standing ovations from an audience of more than 700 people Friday evening at Drake University before he even opened his mouth.
Advisers believe O’Malley, 52, will emerge as the more electable alternative to the 73-year-old Sanders, particularly after voters realize that both are running on a similar populist message.
“I think Bernie is a bit of a stalking horse,” said George Appleby, O’Malley’s state chairman. “He’s putting those issues on the table.”
Appleby and O’Malley both know well how a low-polling candidate can catch fire in Iowa. In 1983, both organized for Gary Hart, another long-shot candidate, who saw his chances lifted by finishing second in the 1984 Iowa caucuses.
“He knows how to run in Iowa,” Appleby said, as he stood in a kitchen while O’Malley spoke in the living room at a Marshalltown house party. “Coming out and doing this over and over.”
The work has yet to pay off. O’Malley remains stuck in the low single digits in Iowa polls, compared to the mid-teens for Sanders (Clinton is at a whopping 60 percent). But he has clearly made some of the right connections. At the Iowa City pub, O’Malley was introduced by Kevin Kinney, a Democratic state senator for whom O’Malley raised money last year. Hours earlier Mark Smith, the top Democrat in the Iowa House, did the same in Marshalltown.
“The thing about O’Malley is he gets things done and he does them with respect,” said Sarah Stutler, a preschool teacher who has heard him several times, including in Mount Vernon Thursday. “He is Biden-esque,” she added, comparing him to the vice president.
O’Malley is careful never to criticize his opponents by name on the trip; when their names come up, he says he has respect for both of them. However, his most powerful line, and one he didn’t repeat at all last week in Iowa, takes aim at both Clinton and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a GOP favorite.
“The presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families,” he said in an ABC interview in March. “It is an awesome and sacred trust that is to be earned and exercised on behalf of the American people.”
Questions about how O’Malley can win over supporters dogged him at every stop.
“Can you tell me why I should change my support from Bernie Sanders to you?” asked Dorie Tammen, shouting her question to O’Malley through a screen window at a sweaty house party in Marshalltown.
O’Malley stresses his relative youth in the field and his 15 years of executive experience. Progressive highlights of his eight years as governor include ending the death penalty, allowing illegal immigrants to pay lower in-state university tuition, expanding gun control laws, raising the minimum wage, and approving same-sex marriage.
Yet it is O’Malley’s record as Baltimore’s mayor that is getting the closest scrutiny from Iowa voters. Faced with a persistently high murder rate, O’Malley ushered in an era of zero-tolerance policing that was imported directly from Rudy Giuliani’s New York City. Some, including Baltimore’s current mayor, have pointed to those O’Malley-era policies as the point where relations frayed between police and the policed in Baltimore.
In the Iowa pub, one woman asked a lengthy and detailed question about his law enforcement record.
“As mayor of Baltimore you oversaw an era of mass arrests,” she said, recounting the hundreds of thousands of people arrested on his watch.
He responded by saying that violent crime was a scourge when he took over, and it plummeted on his watch.
“You weren’t in Baltimore in 1999,’’ O’Malley said, “but I was.”
Related political coverage:
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• Martin O’Malley criticizes super PACs on N.H. visit
• Romney tries out new role as elder statesman of GOP
Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieLinskey.