"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."