— Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley took center stage before a convention of New Hampshire Democrats Saturday, rallying the faithful in a state important to his party's hopes to hold the White House in November — and to his own future should he run for president.

The 22-minute keynote address to the New Hampshire Democratic Party marked O'Malley's debut as the main attraction at an event in this first-in-the-nation primary state. The visit was part of a four-state tour kicking off what looks to be a summer packed with political travel for the 49-year-old governor.

"In the road to recovery there will be ups and downs," O'Malley told the crowd of roughly 500 at the Memorial High School. "But there is one clear direction and that is forward."

The speech was a combination of new lines and familiar points O'Malley has made on the Sunday morning talk shows. He sought to contrast Barack Obama's presidency with that of his predecessor — urging the audience to always use the name "Bush" to preface the words "recession" and "downturn."

Rough patches in the recovery were attributed to lack of cooperation from Republicans in Washington. "We have a job creation President and a constipated Congress," O'Malley said.

Though New Hampshire has just four electoral votes, both parties are watching it closely for November. Recent polls show President Obama ahead here, but presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney — who has a vacation home in New Hampshire — led for much of last year. Some analysts regard the state as a toss-up.

Rank-and-file Democrats in the audience didn't seem to know much about O'Malley, though he has spoken as a surrogate to the group before. They barely clapped when his name was read during the introduction.

But the crowd warmed up fast — punctuating his speech with frequent applause and laughter. Kim Kajack, 46, seated halfway back in the high school auditorium, liked what she heard. "I would vote for him," she said. "I thought he was right on."

O'Malley is term-limited as Maryland governor and will leave office in January 2015. He's traveled to New Hampshire at least twice as governor, appearing at the state convention as a Hillary Clinton surrogate in June 2007 and stumping for her in January 2008.

Landing a solo speaking slot to an influential Granite State audience shows how he has parlayed his tenure as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association into a position of national prominence in the party. In the past 18 months he's addressed a number of state party events across the country, though he brushes off questions about running for higher office as premature.

But U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, speaking before O'Malley took the stage, said many here believe he's likely to run for president. "Martin has been in New Hampshire a lot," she said. "There is some rumor that he might be here a little more often in the future."

After the address, O'Malley loosened his powder-blue tie and chatted with the crowd. He extended his stay to have lunch and meet people.

He was in classic campaign mode: Posing for photos, handing off names and numbers to attentive staff. The BlackBerry stayed out of sight.

People in the audience said they viewed the stop as a chance to size up O'Malley as a national candidate.

Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which does state polling, said he "certainly" plans to include O'Malley's name when he asks early next year about possible presidential contenders for 2016.

The only other two names on his list, for now, are New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Those would be the top three," Smith said.

Though it may seem odd to think about the 2016 race before voters cast their ballots in this year's presidential race, Smith said O'Malley is right on schedule if he is trying to keep options open.

"This is the time you need to do it," Smith said. "There are only so many people in the state who are in the position to help you. They get snapped up pretty quickly."

O'Malley's record of increasing Maryland's sales and income taxes puts him to the left of many in his party nationally — particularly in New Hampshire, which has neither of those taxes.

But some Democrats here said his general message of "investing" in education and high-tech sectors could be appealing even here.