TRENTON, N.J. — — Gov. Martin O'Malley visited New Jersey's capital city Friday to campaign for a candidate for governor who is so far behind in the polls that many in the national Democratic Party have all but abandoned her.
It's unclear how much he helped state Sen. Barbara Buono in her challenge to Republican Gov. Chris Christie, but O'Malley left having persuaded some of Buono's supporters to watch his political future.
"I'm lovin' on your governor," said Betty Young, owner of a beauty shop where O'Malley spoke. "Call me when he gets ready to run. I'll help him, and then some."
Maryland's governor has risen to national prominence largely by campaigning on behalf of fellow Democrats across the country, bringing his sharp-tongued criticism of Republicans and a liberal pedigree. Friday's visit was one stop in a seven-state fall itinerary that puts term-limited O'Malley face to face with party activists who could become supporters if he decides to run for president in 2016.
O'Malley was in the Garden State just weeks ago to woo voters on behalf of a different Democrat, stumping for popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who won his bid for the U.S. Senate this week. But O'Malley's return trip is the kind that could be even more important, analysts said.
"This will be remembered by Buono and all of her people — many of whom will be delegates to the state convention — because she's been abandoned by many other Democrats," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. While she has made recent gains in the race toward next month's election, a poll this week still showed her trailing by 24 percentage points.
"He'll get a lot more out of backing Buono than he did Cory Booker, who everybody was behind," Sabato said.
On Friday, O'Malley jabbed at frequent political sparring partner Christie, another potential 2016 presidential contender whose rise to national prominence has relied on a far different strategy to draw interest from potential primary voters. Where political scientists see O'Malley as a loyal soldier for the Democratic Party, Christie has bucked the Republican establishment and offered at times biting criticism of the GOP.
"A lot of people might have thought that the Chris Christie act was really funny, made great on 'The Tonight Show' and 'Morning Joe,' " O'Malley told a crowd of educators at his second stop in Trenton. "He was like Don Rickles without a commitment to the common good."
Christie's campaign declined to comment on the remark, but campaign spokesman Kevin Roberts called O'Malley "one of the hardest and most hard-core partisans that you've seen over the past few years."
Maryland Republicans, meanwhile, have criticized O'Malley for pursuing political interests outside the state, particularly since taxpayers foot the bill for his security team wherever the governor travels.
"There is an enormous cost involved for travel and protection for the governor," House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke said. "He's using his office for his own political goals, and Maryland taxpayers are not the better for it."
O'Malley's travel to New Jersey comes as his job approval rating at home has suffered. A Gonzales poll released Thursday showed his disapproval rating climbed 7 percentage points among Maryland voters since January to 48 percent. Pollster Patrick Gonzales attributed the shift to O'Malley's "spending political capital" during the General Assembly session by passing gun-control measures, repealing the death penalty and increasing the gas tax.
O'Malley said Maryland has a vested interest in New Jersey's gubernatorial race, pointing to environmental and economic policies that affect the Mid-Atlantic region and would be better served by Buono. "I admire her courage," he said. "I admire her guts."
This fall, as O'Malley is contemplating whether to run for the White House, he has already visited New York, Cleveland, and Tallahassee and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Next week, he'll be in Houston to headline the Johnson Rayburn Richards Gala, a prominent fundraiser for Texas Democrats. In November, he'll serve a similar role at party events in New Hampshire and Pittsburgh.
"Astute politicians try to keep their options open, and that means adding potential supporters," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, author of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "The insiders are always eager to meet someone who might be president one day." And the candidates, he said, "want to collect chips, just in case they need to use them down the line."
"This is not altruism," Rothenberg said. "This is politics."
Much of O'Malley's past political work outside Maryland involved trying to elect Democrats to statehouses as an official of the Democratic Governors Association, where O'Malley is finance chair and served two terms as chairman. But aides said he came to New Jersey on Friday for his own reasons, not at the behest of the DGA.
This year, he has hosted fundraisers for Iowa Rep. Bruce Baley, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. O'Malley's also co-hosted fundraisers for Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden — son of Vice President Joe Biden — and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey.
In Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County Democratic Party saw O'Malley as "a logical" choice for the party's annual fundraiser with the county's legal and business communities, said executive director Nancy Patton Mills.
Not only does O'Malley's extended family live on the northern side of Pittsburgh, but "we also think he's an up-and-coming Democrat on the national stage," Mills said. "We're very excited about his future and see him, maybe, as the next vice president."
Polls of potential 2016 Democratic contenders put O'Malley far behind both Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, neither of whom has announced intentions to run. But that hasn't stopped some high-profile Democrats from speculating how O'Malley would fit on a national ticket.
When Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas gave an address to the Maryland Democratic Party's annual fundraising gala in September — speaking just ahead of O'Malley that night — he closed his remarks by describing a vision of hoping to watch Fox News commentator Bret Baier on Election Day.
"He will say, at 8:30 at night, we're going to call this election," Castro told the crowd. "The results from Texas and from other states have come in, and we're going to call this election for the Democratic ticket: Hillary Clinton and Gov. Martin O'Malley from Maryland."
Maryland Democrats cheered at the remark, which O'Malley did not mention during his speech that followed. Asked twice Friday whether he wanted to be vice president, O'Malley said, "I'm here for Barbara Buono. And I want my children to live in a country of more, not a country of less, and leadership matters."
As O'Malley spoke to the New Jersey Educators Association on Friday, the organization's vice president, Marie Blistan, leaned over to the group's secretary and whispered, "I've got to figure out how to vote for him."
Blistan was elated to learn that he is considering a bid for the presidency. "He's articulate, he's smart. He's a contender for everything, maybe even a vice president with Hillary Clinton," she said. "I want to vote for him as president."
Before O'Malley spoke to the New Jersey educators, Buono supporters played a campaign video that ended with Buono's remark that Christie "wants to be president. I want to be your governor."
O'Malley gave Buono a high five.
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