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