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With session over, O'Malley more free to focus on 2016

Experts say more travel, fundraising likely for the governor this year

By John Fritze and Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

9:46 PM EDT, April 12, 2014

WASHINGTON —

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His final legislative session is over, but Gov. Martin O'Malley is unlikely to have a restful last nine months in office.

As he weighs whether to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, political observers and those who have faced the same situation say the remainder of this year will be an important test of the governor's ability to lift his profile in early-voting states and raise enough money to appear credible on the national stage.

But even as he looks beyond the state where he has served in elected office for 23 years, O'Malley will be repeatedly pulled back to the ground in Maryland — to help elect Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown as his replacement, for instance, and to fix the state's troubled health insurance exchange. Both officials have faced criticism over the exchange, which crashed on its first day and limped along with software problems for months.

In other words, O'Malley may have more to do than most officials finishing their terms in office. for O'Malley, the term "lame duck" may not apply.

"You want to make it clear to your constituents that you're still governor of Maryland, even though you're running for president," Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, said of the balancing act O'Malley will face in coming months.

"Your main interest is still in being governor," said Richardson, who had nearly three years remaining in his gubernatorial term when he announced his candidacy in mid-2007. "You have to show up once in a while."

Experts predict that O'Malley, whose term ends a full year before the Iowa caucus, will continue to do what he's been doing — traveling and fundraising — but on a more intense scale. Some of that effort may already be underway: The governor was set to speak at a party dinner in Wisconsin on Saturday, travel to Kentucky for Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes on Thursday and stump in Massachusetts in May.

Aides say O'Malley also expects to visit Michigan, Maine, Florida and Pennsylvania in the coming months.

And he has already engaged in the most important political fight of this year: control of the U.S. Senate. He's hosted fundraisers for vulnerable Democratic incumbents such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska.

"He seems to be doing it by the book," said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and arguably Washington's best-known political handicapper. "O'Malley is doing everything he needs to do — what someone should do in these circumstances."

O'Malley, who turned 51 this year, is flirting with a presidential race that is wildly unpredictable. The Democratic field will be heavily influenced by whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enters the race — a move that most feel would relegate everyone else, including O'Malley, to second-tier status.

The former first lady and New York senator acknowledged Tuesday that she's "thinking about" a run, two words that sparked a flurry of political coverage. A super PAC run by former aides raised nearly $4 million last year. And her latest book, focused on her time in President Barack Obama's Cabinet, is due to be published in June.

Clinton's shadow has limited the ability of others to raise cash, but O'Malley nevertheless collected $1.7 million for his own PAC in 2013.

For his part, the governor has remained coy about his future. In an interview during the waning days of the General Assembly session, he declined to say whether he will spend more time on a presidential campaign this year, whether he will enter the race if Clinton has already announced, whether he will make a decision before he leaves office or whether he has spoken with Clinton about 2016.

He has previously said he is "thinking" about a run. Asked whether he is also thinking about some other career path after his term ends in January, O'Malley demurred.

"I need to turn my attention to all of those things. I haven't done so yet," he said. "I have spent some time and some effort thinking about our country's direction and a better way forward after President Obama's term is over — and I'll continue to do that."

Political observers say O'Malley, if he's serious, will likely ramp up soon.

The governor has faced several recent controversies, including the health exchange woes and a scandal at the state-run Baltimore jail, which brought unwanted attention from the national media. He's also won a string of legislative victories — same-sex marriage, tighter gun controls and, most recently, an increase in the state's minimum wage.

Despite the high-profile successes and setbacks, O'Malley remains largely unknown outside Maryland.

A Suffolk University poll of likely Iowa caucus voters last week found 63 percent supported Clinton, more than Vice President Joe Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick combined. O'Malley's name didn't even appear in the poll.

A January poll by the University of New Hampshire of voters in that state put O'Malley's support at less than 1 percent.

Even in his home state, support for a presidential bid is sparing. A Baltimore Sun poll released in February found that Clinton outpolled O'Malley by 10-1 in Maryland.

Early polling doesn't necessarily offer much insight, but it does suggest that O'Malley has a lot of work ahead.

Karen Hughes, a senior aide to George W. Bush in the Texas statehouse and, later, the White House, recalled that the 1999 legislative session was a particularly busy time as the team juggled state issues and those related to the coming presidential election.

Bush announced an exploratory committee in March 1999, about three months before the session in Austin ended. Hughes said it was around that time that the governor's staffing began to change. Hughes, who had split her time between the state and the campaign, began focusing on the 2000 presidential election full time.

"I remember during the day it would be the day job of running the capital, but he would have meetings on weekends and at nights" Hughes said. "We would meet on a Saturday [and] a group of legislators would come in from Iowa [or] we'd bring in policy experts on sit around the table" to help Bush formulate his platform.

O'Malley's federal political action committee already has a small number of aides associated with it in Washington, including an executive director and a finance director.

But before O'Malley can fully engage, experts said, there are at least two Maryland issues he'll have to address. One is ensuring Brown's election as governor. Because the two have worked closely together, a loss by Brown would reflect poorly on O'Malley.

The other is fixing the state's health insurance exchange, which has been among the most glitch-prone in the nation. If that system isn't working well by the time the next open enrollment period begins in November, it will become harder for O'Malley to continue to tout his management skills.

"The two things that his opponents are bound to pounce on are health care and the Baltimore jail," Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said in reference to the exchange and the scandal that led to convictions of gang members and staffers at the Baltimore City Detention Center. "A rule of politics is: If you have a weakness. it will used by opponents."

Republicans in Maryland have wrestled with how to approach the governor's travel. Initially, they sent anti-O'Malley literature to help their colleagues in other states criticize his message. And when O'Malley visited South Carolina last March, the executive director of the Maryland GOP at the time drove to Charleston to picket outside the governor's event.

For now, state GOP officials don't intend to dispatch staff to rebut O'Malley on the road.

"He's really not a favorite to win; he's hardly showing up on the polls," said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Republican Party of Maryland. "In my eyes, I think he's running for vice president and president. I'm not going to spend a lot of time and resources to affect his presidential run."

But state Republicans are likely to question O'Malley's time out of state — and the expense.

"He uses his office to allow himself to go places," Cluster said, "and he uses the taxpayers to pay for it."

Still, to preserve the option to run, O'Malley really has no choice, others say.

"He's still got an office, he's got the ability to travel, he's got a staff to schedule him — he ought to be out there every day he can," Sabato said. "Most governors at the end of their term are at a loss to know what to do. At least his task is in front of him."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

ecox@baltsun.co