NEW YORK - Martin O'Malley strode onto a stage with Bill Clinton yesterday, as a crowd at New York University rose to applaud and the snowy-haired former president wrapped his arm around the young Baltimore mayor.
The moment - captured by more than a dozen television cameras and more than 20 reporters from around the country - came at the climax of a two-day conference of Democratic activists who are debating ways to retake the White House after demoralizing defeats in 2000 and last month.
"Congratulations to Mayor O'Malley on being the Esquire magazine cover boy," said Clinton, referring to an article this month that labeled O'Malley the "best young mayor" in the nation. "I hope it's just the beginning of greater things to come."
The Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate to conservative-leaning Democrats, invited O'Malley to join discussions about the party's direction because the council views O'Malley as "one of the brightest young stars in the Democratic Party," said DLC Chief Executive Officer Al From.
O'Malley's appearance was the most recent of several events this year that have given him national media exposure and strengthened his contacts with party heavyweights who could help him if he runs for higher office one day. Although O'Malley maintains that he is focused on running the city, his ambition can be seen in a letter from Clinton that the mayor gave to Esquire for publication as part of its profile of him.
In the letter, Clinton congratulates O'Malley for not running for governor this year. But the former president adds, "I won't be surprised if you go all the way."
But O'Malley's high-profile appearance with the DLC raises intriguing questions about his politics, according to observers of the Maryland political scene.
"O'Malley has positioned himself to the left with his rhetoric and policies in the city," said Keith Haller, a veteran Maryland political pollster. "The idea that he is becoming the fair-haired boy for the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate or conservative group, is very interesting. Is he trying to moderate his liberal image for a national audience?"
The mayor calls himself a "progressive liberal," a label that encompasses positions that seem to span the range of party ideology: He has made law and order his top priority, but he is against the death penalty.
O'Malley said he was recruited to join the DLC soon after he was elected mayor three years ago. He said that although he enjoys debating strategy with the organization, he doesn't subscribe to all the positions of its leadership.
He said he made clear his differences in discussions that included leaders such as Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Evan Bayh of Indiana and focused on what the council calls the "battle over the soul of the Democratic Party."
Over cocktails, a salmon dinner and a series of closed-door talks at the trendy W Hotel in Manhattan, the DLC urged party members to turn away from liberalism to prevent repeating the defeat in the congressional mid-term elections last month.
"On its current course, the Democratic Party will lose the White House in 2004 even more decisively than it lost Congress in 2002," DLC leaders From and Bruce Reed wrote in a memo distributed to the participants in yesterday's event.
"If those who want to move the party to the left are successful, our losses will be of historic proportion," From and Reed wrote.
The DLC leaders urged Democrats to move away from the old formula of energizing traditional Democratic voters by championing minority, urban and pro-union issues. Instead, they said, the party should take up the banner of the suburban middle-class.
"The harsh reality is that the Democratic base just isn't big enough to win: there are more conservatives than liberals ... more suburbanites than big-city dwellers, more whites than minorities, more non-union workers than union workers," From and Reed wrote.
During the closed-door strategy sessions yesterday, O'Malley said he advised the council not to forget about cities in its quest for suburban voters, and not to move too far to the right. He also talked about how spending money on homeland security measures should be viewed as investments in local economies.
"I don't agree with, 'Oh my God! We're getting too close to the left, it's like a stovetop and we're going to get burned,'" said O'Malley. "I told them that they shouldn't confuse a lack of a Democratic agenda with a public shift to the right, which I don't believe has happened."
O'Malley is neither an "old" nor a "new" Democrat. He's of a younger generation than the baby boomers who dominate the Democratic Party and founded the DLC. As his supporters often point out, O'Malley is a post-civil rights era Democrat who is not replaying the riots of 1968 in his mind and is not locked into the racial and ideological clashes of that period.
In addition to opposing the death penalty, the mayor strongly supports affirmative action and opposes state tax cuts - all orthodox liberal positions.
But he has also privatized city jobs, angered local unions and approved tax breaks for developers to stimulate business.
"O'Malley is very difficult to categorize," said Carol Arscott, an Annapolis-based pollster. "His opposition to the death penalty clearly doesn't fit into the DLC mold."
'Clinton showed way'
Yet O'Malley sees no contradictions. He points to Clinton as a Democrat who showed that the government didn't have to make false choices between right and left - between stimulating the economy and helping the poor, for example.
"Clinton showed the way," said O'Malley.
The former president reiterated that theme yesterday, advocating a middle road between liberalism and conservatism.
"This may be viewed by heresy by some, but I'd like to see the DLC institute a dialogue with conservatives all across the nation," said Clinton. "We should have conversations about how supporting the Brady [gun control] bill doesn't mean we don't support the right of people to own firearms. Being pro-choice doesn't mean that we want more abortions in America."