MANCHESTER, N.H. — — Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley took center stage before a convention of New Hampshire Democrats Saturday, rallying the faithful in a state important to his party's hopes to hold the White House in November — and to his own future should he run for president.
The 22-minute keynote address to the New Hampshire Democratic Party marked O'Malley's debut as the main attraction at an event in this first-in-the-nation primary state. The visit was part of a four-state tour kicking off what looks to be a summer packed with political travel for the 49-year-old governor.
"In the road to recovery there will be ups and downs," O'Malley told the crowd of roughly 500 at the Memorial High School. "But there is one clear direction and that is forward."
The speech was a combination of new lines and familiar points O'Malley has made on the Sunday morning talk shows. He sought to contrast Barack Obama's presidency with that of his predecessor — urging the audience to always use the name "Bush" to preface the words "recession" and "downturn."
Rough patches in the recovery were attributed to lack of cooperation from Republicans in Washington. "We have a job creation President and a constipated Congress," O'Malley said.
Though New Hampshire has just four electoral votes, both parties are watching it closely for November. Recent polls show President Obama ahead here, but presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney — who has a vacation home in New Hampshire — led for much of last year. Some analysts regard the state as a toss-up.
Rank-and-file Democrats in the audience didn't seem to know much about O'Malley, though he has spoken as a surrogate to the group before. They barely clapped when his name was read during the introduction.
But the crowd warmed up fast — punctuating his speech with frequent applause and laughter. Kim Kajack, 46, seated halfway back in the high school auditorium, liked what she heard. "I would vote for him," she said. "I thought he was right on."
O'Malley is term-limited as Maryland governor and will leave office in January 2015. He's traveled to New Hampshire at least twice as governor, appearing at the state convention as a Hillary Clinton surrogate in June 2007 and stumping for her in January 2008.
Landing a solo speaking slot to an influential Granite State audience shows how he has parlayed his tenure as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association into a position of national prominence in the party. In the past 18 months he's addressed a number of state party events across the country, though he brushes off questions about running for higher office as premature.
But U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, speaking before O'Malley took the stage, said many here believe he's likely to run for president. "Martin has been in New Hampshire a lot," she said. "There is some rumor that he might be here a little more often in the future."
After the address, O'Malley loosened his powder-blue tie and chatted with the crowd. He extended his stay to have lunch and meet people.
He was in classic campaign mode: Posing for photos, handing off names and numbers to attentive staff. The BlackBerry stayed out of sight.
People in the audience said they viewed the stop as a chance to size up O'Malley as a national candidate.
Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which does state polling, said he "certainly" plans to include O'Malley's name when he asks early next year about possible presidential contenders for 2016.
The only other two names on his list, for now, are New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Those would be the top three," Smith said.
Though it may seem odd to think about the 2016 race before voters cast their ballots in this year's presidential race, Smith said O'Malley is right on schedule if he is trying to keep options open.
"This is the time you need to do it," Smith said. "There are only so many people in the state who are in the position to help you. They get snapped up pretty quickly."
O'Malley's record of increasing Maryland's sales and income taxes puts him to the left of many in his party nationally — particularly in New Hampshire, which has neither of those taxes.
But some Democrats here said his general message of "investing" in education and high-tech sectors could be appealing even here.
"Taxes is not a totally verboten topic," state Sen. Sylvia Larsen, the Senate Democratic leader. "Among Democrats, we want to hear that balance. We want to make sure we are paying for those things for which we have a community responsibility, whether it is new schools or roads."
Larsen, like many of the political elite here, has seen a parade of potential candidates over the years. She's opened her home to host Hillary Clinton, Obama and Richard Gephardt, among others. She says she can pick a winner.
"Some just make a room," Larsen said. "They walk into a room and it bursts into light. You can just feel it."
And O'Malley? "I liked some of his phrases," Larsen said. "At this point he's not trying to light anything up."
New Hampshire was among the first states to approve same-sex marriage without a court order; O'Malley successfully pushed similar legislation in Maryland this year and is raising money to defend the law in an expected November referendum.
But he didn't mention Maryland's new law in his remarks. He said later that the omission was not intentional, and that he's discussed it in smaller gatherings here. A magazine from a gay rights group emblazoned with O'Malley's photo was distributed widely at the event.
The New Hampshire visit included a Friday night meet-and-greet with party leaders at the Wild Rover, an Irish pub in Manchester. On Saturday morning, O'Malley schmoozed during a private breakfast at his hotel before arriving in the rain to the convention.
His tour began Thursday when he flew to Wisconsin and joined such party heavyweights as Bill Clinton in stumping for the Democratic candidate in a fierce gubernatorial contest. He then stopped in Massachusetts, Romney's home state. After Saturday's speech in Manchester, O'Malley was headed to Maine to keynote its state Democratic party convention.
Additional summer travel is expected to include jaunts to Chicago, Williamsburg, Va., and Aspen, Colo.
The trips are being funded by the Democratic Governors Association, a group dedicated to keeping governors' mansions blue. He was accompanied by a combination of Maryland State House and DGA employees — though all were traveling at the association's expense, said Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman on the trip.
New Hampshire Democrats are girding for a pitched battle in November on several fronts: They've held the governor's mansion for the past four terms but must defend an open seat since popular incumbent Gov. John Lynch isn't seeking re-election. New Hampshire's four electoral votes are also up for grabs in the presidential race.
Campaigns in New Hampshire run into the millions because candidates must buy time in the expensive Boston media market. Party leaders made clear they will be asking for a piece of the $28 million raised by the Democratic governors group since O'Malley took charge of the organization.
O'Malley also heard some advice from officials here. Before talking to a group of reporters, he waited as state Democratic Party chairman Raymond Buckley gave final remarks. "I'd like to encourage everyone in the room to think about running for office," he said.
"I can do that," O'Malley said.
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