CHARLESTON, S.C.—— Gov. Martin O'Malley took the stage Saturday at a high school in this early presidential primary state, telling an auditorium of South Carolina Democrats that his principles worked in Maryland — and they'd work elsewhere.
"We're investing more to improve public education, to hold down college tuition, to spur innovation and job creation," O'Malley said to a crowd of 150 party faithful. But he also said Maryland has "cut state spending big time," casting himself as a pragmatist who makes tough choices.
"We've been following him," George Temple, former chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party, said after he stopped O'Malley to shake his hand. "He's a rising star who is obviously on his way to bigger and better things, we hope."
O'Malley, who is considering a 2016 bid for the White House, was stumping for a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate as he delivered an address that both sharply criticized South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and proclaimed "the threshold of a new era of American progress."
As the keynote speaker at this conference for the South Carolina Democratic Party, O'Malley had a dual purpose, experts said: rallying Democrats in a state dominated by Republicans and introducing himself and his message.
"What Martin O'Malley is doing now is exactly the thing he needs to do," said political consultant Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who works in Charleston.
"You can go out here on the street in front of my office and ask 20 people who Martin O'Malley is," Fowler said before Saturday's event. "Someone will probably tell you he plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nobody knows him, so he's working from a clean slate."
Charlie Cook of the "Cook Political Report" considers O'Malley one of four likely candidates for the 2016 nomination. The list is topped by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. Alongside O'Malley on the second tier, Cook said, is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"Nobody outside of Maryland knows O'Malley's record. There is no impression" of him, Cook said. "We're talking about blank pieces of paper."
Cook called the records of O'Malley and Cuomo virtually identical. "You'd need a microscope to see the difference," he said.
In South Carolina, hours before O'Malley arrived at the event, college seniors Keegan Smith and Bryan Carter relied on Google to introduce them to Maryland's governor.
"The media is telling me he's the new up-and-coming Democrat, but that's all I know," said Smith, a political science major at the College of Charleston, the same university O'Malley's daughter Tara attends.
"He was mayor of Baltimore, right?" asked Carter.
After the speech, both young Democrats said they liked what they heard. "I see the charisma," Carter said. "I think his achievements in Maryland could really help in South Carolina."
The Maryland Republican Party's executive director took issue with the achievements O'Malley cited. David Ferguson drove his truck down to Charleston to stage an event outside the West Ashley High School where O'Malley spoke, giving local Republicans a playbook to attack him. Ferguson's talking points include enumerating the thousands of businesses that have left Maryland and the unemployment level.
"Just like Barack Obama was unknown in 2004, Martin O'Malley is unknown in 2016," Ferguson said. "He's able to invent whatever he wants to say, and someone needs to be around to tell the truth. … If you can't find a job when you graduate, what does it matter to keep the cost of college down?"
The Maryland General Assembly, which ends its annual session in two weeks, has been working toward giving O'Malley another set of accomplishments that appeal to a Democratic base. Lawmakers have already voted to repeal Maryland's death penalty and provide a subsidy for the development of offshore wind power.
He's also expected to get new gas taxes to pay for mass transit and highway projects, as well as some if not all of his gun control proposals. His past victories include legalizing same-sex marriage and extending in-state tuition rates to some illegal immigrants — issues that political consultants say appeal to most Democratic primary voters in any state, including South Carolina.
"I think he represents the next generation of Democratic politicians in America," said Phil Noble, who has been active in South Carolina politics for decades. "They're pragmatic," Noble said. He said he first met O'Malley nearly 30 years ago when O'Malley came through South Carolina working on a presidential campaign.
"The message of what he is all about is a viable message in South Carolina, in Arkansas, in California and everywhere else," Noble said.
O'Malley's positioning himself as a pragmatist rang hollow to legislative Republicans who have faced off against his administration for seven years. "This governor has not shown that with his ability to work with the minority," House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell said. "I've been here 19 years. I've watched three governors, and this one is the worst in terms of pragmatism."
If O'Malley runs for president, experts say, he must find a way to package his accomplishments into something that can be sold outside Maryland to an electorate that may not know his name. A February poll of New Hampshire voters, taken three years before the primary election, found O'Malley drew support from less than 1 percent of state Democrats.
The relatively unknown nature of O'Malley, Fowler said, is an asset: "He can describe the image and the record that he wants to."
O'Malley, 50, has increasingly raised his national profile, traveling the country last year in his second stint as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. The two-term governor, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits, has made several appearances on Sunday morning talk shows as a surrogate for other Democratic governors and candidates.
He last visited South Carolina in January 2012 to stump for President Barack Obama, who dominated among Democrats in the 2008 primary but lost South Carolina to Republicans in both his presidential elections. On Saturday, O'Malley said he was appearing in his role as finance chairman for the DGA, promoting Democrats as governors across the country.
Mattie Thomas, 63, twice picked up her iPad and snapped photos of O'Malley sitting in the audience Saturday to hear a panel discuss South Carolina's voter identification law. She couldn't recall at which Democratic event she'd met Maryland's governor. It wasn't until he took the stage later — leading the crowd in the Obama campaign chant of "Fired up! Ready to go!" — that she remembered. She'd first seen O'Malley on MSNBC.
Thomas said she doesn't know anything about his record or views, but she said her picture is worth a thousand words. "He's a good listener," Thomas said. "And that's what I'm going to tell people. He came in and listened to what we had to say. First impressions are everything, and he made a good impression on me."
O'Malley visited 11 states between June and September last year, including Iowa and New Hampshire, which also have early primary contests. On Saturday, he was invited to speak by South Carolina state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who is considering a second bid for the governor's mansion now held by Haley.
Richard Hricik, chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party, said the audience was impressed. "His resume of pragmatism is really compelling," Hricik said. "If he wants to move here, we'll take him."