A Montgomery County meet-and-greet tomorrow is the latest sign that Mayor Martin O'Malley is stepping up his push for name recognition around the state in what he said this week are early preparations for a gubernatorial run next year.
Before November's election, O'Malley, who has long been expected to run for higher office, deflected questions about his gubernatorial aspirations by saying he was focused on winning another term in the city.
With that hurdle cleared (he got 87 percent of the vote), he has edged as close as he will likely get to confirming his candidacy until he officially declares, something previous contenders have not done until the spring of an election year.
"I am laying the groundwork to run for governor," he said after listening to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s State of the State address Thursday.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, O'Malley's presumed primary opponent, has similarly toed the line about his intentions.
It would be highly unusual for a candidate to declare for governor so soon - Ehrlich didn't make his 2002 campaign official until the end of March, and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wasn't technically a candidate until May of that year, even though the then-lieutenant governor's plans were a foregone conclusion.
Part of the reason for the delay is legal. Candidates for governor can't raise money during the legislative session, and government employees can't devote their full time to political activity, so an official campaign would make it more difficult for top aides to Duncan or O'Malley to keep their day jobs running the county and city.
Duncan has been in Annapolis several times since the legislative session opened this year. O'Malley missed the opening week to take a trip to Israel - a key step to winning the Jewish vote - but has been to the capital a handful of times since he got back.
Much of the mayor's travels have been to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, places rich in Democratic primary voters but where Duncan is better known.
In the past few weeks, the mayor has made appearances at the Sixth District Democratic Club in eastern Baltimore County; the sanctuary in Kingdom Square Church in Capitol Heights; the Prince George's County senior citizen breakfast; an open house with Montgomery County Councilwoman Marilyn Praisner; a reception held by young professionals in Bethesda; a Cease Fire Maryland event in Montgomery County; and a reception with the Western Maryland delegation in Annapolis.
In early January, he met with the editorial board of the Gazette newspapers, which circulate in the Washington suburbs and Southern Maryland, and yesterday he spoke with WTOP radio in Washington.
"He's reaching out to people around the state, raising money and laying the groundwork for a run for governor," said O'Malley adviser Stephen Kearney.
Duncan has made the rounds of house parties in the Baltimore area, including one in the home of state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat.
In another sign that the mayor is thinking beyond the city came in his latest "Neighborhood News Flash," a periodic e-mail he sends to thousands of city residents, which employed a liberal sense of his "neighborhood." He expresses concern about Montgomery County children going to school in trailers, the state's investment in higher education and the possible sale of state parks and forests, an unpopular topic broached by the Ehrlich administration.
An e-mail circulating about an O'Malley meet-and-greet in Chevy Chase tomorrow appears to out the mayor as a candidate for governor (and maybe president some day). The e-mail refers to "candidate O'Malley" and says, "We thought you would like to be there for this exciting beginning to an important campaign."
But the organizer of the event, Dr. Fred Solomon of Chevy Chase, said he didn't write the e-mail and doesn't mean to make an official endorsement of the mayor. The event is the idea of a group of friends (mostly Democrats) who decided to get over their depression about President Bush's re-election by getting more involved in state and local politics, he said.
Solomon said all he knows of the mayor came from an appearance O'Malley made on a local cable show in Montgomery County in which he analyzed Bush's victory over Sen. John Kerry.
"Many of us were very impressed," Solomon said. "He was just very forthright."
Sun staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.