Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was in this first-in-the-nation caucus state Sunday to give the keynote address to hundreds at a Democratic barbecue — a role frequently reserved for likely presidential candidates.

The invitation, and decision to speak, is a step on O'Malley's march toward national prominence and fuels speculation about a possible run for the White House in 2016. Previous headliners at Sen. Tom Harkin's annual "Steak Fry" include Barack Obama, Richard Gephardt, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

"If you are a politician, you don't casually go to Iowa," said Katie O'Conner, who was one of Howard Dean's top advisers when he ran for president in 2004. "You are obviously thinking of something. You don't just go for the heck of going."

Harkin, the 38-year veteran of Congress who hosts the annual event as a fundraiser for his own re-election, said he asked O'Malley to speak because he's "one of our real shining lights in the Democratic party." He cited O'Malley's poised demeanor during cable talk shows and his record in Maryland funding education and forging ties to unions, which are important in Iowa.

"He has all of the qualifications to be a great candidate for president," Harkin said. At the Warren County Fairgrounds, Harkin and O'Malley stood together on a stage adorned with bales of hay, an American flag the size of a barn door, and signs that read "AFSCME Iowa 'hearts' Governor O'Malley" — an early valentine from one of the most powerful unions in the state. Harkin called O'Malley "my kind of Democrat."

The trip not only signals O'Malley's political ambitions, but also underscores the kinds of challenges undeclared candidates face as they juggle day jobs with hectic travel schedules and seek to mold an image that appeals to a broad spectrum of voters who won't see them on a ballot anytime soon. O'Malley has faced criticism for his travel schedule from Maryland Republicans and some analysts who don't think he's ready for the national stage.

The first question from the Iowa press corps: Is it difficult to begin testing the waters in Iowa before the 2012 election has been held? (O'Malley replied: "I don't know. That is not what I'm doing.")

O'Malley said he came as a surrogate for President Obama to Iowa, where the polls have him just about even with challenger Mitt Romney. He also cited his responsibilities as the chair of the Democratic Governors Association to help lay groundwork for the next gubernatorial election in Iowa. It is two years from now.

Harkin's campaign paid for O'Malley's trip, said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor.

Campaign strategists see the Steak Fry as an important way to reach hundreds of the Democratic activists who act as surrogates and organizers during Iowa's unusual caucus process. Rather than a simple primary election, Iowa voters meet — sometimes for hours — and hear speeches from the various campaigns before making their selection.

The Steak Fry "is a regular stop on the Iowa pre-caucus circuit," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "O'Malley's obviously running for president if he can. Ergo, he needs to make an appearance, or more than one."

Not all of his appearances have been successful. Just three weeks ago, O'Malley gave a prime-time address to the Democratic National Convention that was widely panned by political writers.

On Sunday, Harkin and O'Malley arrived at the Indianola Fairgrounds together, and the pair manned a grill thick with sizzling steaks for a few moments.

Harkin wore khaki pants; O'Malley donned jeans and a navy blue Under Armour shirt.

The governor led the crowd of about 1,000 in the "forward not back" mantra he used a few weeks ago from Charlotte, N.C.

"We live in changing times. The question is: What kind of change to we want it to be?" O'Malley said. "How much less education do you really think would be good for our country?" he asked, a line he frequently uses.

He tailored the next question to the rural audience. "How many family farms can we no longer afford to save?" he asked.

The reception was mixed. Kate Ortiz, a 57-year-old teacher from Leon, Iowa, didn't like O'Malley's repeating the "forward not backward" lines. "His speechwriters, if he has any, need to tell him to drop the orchestrated crowd response," she wrote on a note that she left on a reporter's windshield. "I do not like feeling like an automaton repeating what I'm told to say."

Still, she liked parts of his speech and appreciated seeing him in person. "He sounded more like 'himself' today than a party-selected spokesman," she wrote. "I will be sure to pay attention when his name comes up again."