CONCORD, N.H. -- Gov. Martin O'Malley got to live a politician's dream yesterday when his sport utility vehicle rolled to a stop in this presidential primary-obsessed state amid a throng of cheering supporters.
The only hitch was that they were chanting somebody else's name.
O'Malley was in Concord for the day on behalf of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presidential candidate he endorsed last month, representing her at the New Hampshire Democratic Party state convention while she was busy campaigning in Iowa.
Although it was not at first clear whether those chanting "Who will it be? HRC!" at O'Malley's car were greeting him or under the mistaken impression that he was a voter in need of convincing, they turned out to be the first part of a warm welcome from the state's first-in-the-nation primary voters.
"Governor O'Malley has all the right characteristics," said Sylvia B. Larsen, president of the New Hampshire Senate and a veteran of the state's quadrennial vetting of presidential candidates. "He's personable. He's nice to talk to and nice to look at."
Nevertheless, O'Malley faces a tough balancing act between establishing a national presence and doing his day job. He has long faced criticism from those who believe he is always looking to the next office - a criticism former Gov. William Donald Schaefer has frequently raised - and Republicans in Maryland are keeping a close eye on his travels.
Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland, said O'Malley should be home working on a solution to the state's projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall.
"With a trip to Ireland, a trip to Las Vegas and a trip now to New Hampshire, it seems like there's a lot of high-profile travel going on and not a lot of heavy lifting on the state's financial problems," O'Donnell said.
While the Las Vegas trip was an economic development jaunt, and the Dublin visit largely consisted of policy presentations to Irish leaders, the New Hampshire appearance was purely political.
O'Malley said he doesn't intend to make a habit of trips like yesterday's, which he said he was comfortable making because he was able to go up and back on the same day. The challenges he faces as governor means he needs to stay close to home, he said.
He added, however, that getting Clinton elected to the White House could be the best way for Maryland and other states to fix the health care system, ensure homeland security and tackle other national problems.
While Clinton sent O'Malley as her convention surrogate, four presidential candidates spoke at the event - Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio. The rest of the Democratic candidates are due to arrive today for a debate.
O'Malley had competition as the most prominent surrogate from Michelle Obama, the wife of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and he didn't generate quite as much attention as some of the candidates, particularly Richardson.
He didn't go unnoticed, though.
Even as the New Hampshire Democrats consider the eight candidates for the party's 2008 nomination, the state's political veterans say they're always on the lookout for new talent, so that O'Malley didn't so much work the room as stand in a relaxed slouch in a stuffy school cafeteria and let the room work him. A steady stream of New Hampshire politicians - with a 424-member legislature, there's no lack of them - walked up to shake his hand and give him a quick once-over.
"It's always good to visit New Hampshire in a presidential year and see how seriously our fellow citizens take their responsibility," O'Malley said. "It's a positive aspect of our strange presidential election process that all candidates can still get to campaign in a state where regardless of how much money you do or don't have, you can reach everyone."
Because there were no Republicans around and no other governors performing similar duty for other candidates, O'Malley had a receptive crowd. There wasn't talk of a Clinton-O'Malley ticket - a notion that has buzzed around Annapolis and Baltimore in the weeks since the governor endorsed the former first lady - but a substantial portion of the crowd had heard of O'Malley and had a positive if vague notion of his record as mayor.
That, and the fact that he was in a band.
Mostly, though, they seemed to pick up on the idea that he could someday be back to New Hampshire in his own right.
"I've heard of Governor O'Malley, the great things he did as mayor of Baltimore, and I've heard him mentioned as presidential material," said Boaz Chandrasekhar, 18, a student at Philips Exeter Academy who was one of the first to shake O'Malley's hand yesterday. "I've had a very favorable impression of him."
O'Malley is no stranger to presidential politics - he cut his teeth in former Sen. Gary Hart's 1984 campaign, and in 2004 he got a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. He has even been to New Hampshire to knock on doors. Even so, he said he was a bit surprised that many of the people at the convention knew who he was, a phenomenon he attributed to the fact that everyone in New Hampshire Democratic politics seems to have a cousin from Maryland or to have worked on the Hart campaign.
One of those old Hart friends, George Durazzo Jr., who was Hart's volunteer coordinator when a 19-year-old O'Malley was working for Hart's campaign in the Iowa caucus, said he was delighted to run into his old friend in Concord. "We all saw somebody pretty special," Durazzo said. "I remember him as a kind of chess-playing, strategic thinker in a Levi's jean jacket."
O'Malley paid for his expenses - and those of an entourage that included four aides and two state troopers - out of his state campaign fund, according to spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.
Along for the ride was attorney John P. Coale, the Democratic money man who lent O'Malley $500,000 in the final days of last year's gubernatorial campaign. Abbruzzese said Coale paid his own way.
The governor split the day in Concord between informal chats, one-on-one meetings with persuadable New Hampshire Democrats the Clinton campaign lined up for him, interviews with TV stations and a seven-minute speech in the school gym.
The speech, about "the unity of spirit and matter" and "moving America forward again," sounded like O'Malley's stump speech from the gubernatorial campaign but with sections about Clinton's positions on health care, homeland security and the war in Iraq. He managed a few lines that drew ovations, even from people not holding Clinton signs, and got generally positive reviews on his ability to serve as a surrogate.
Ricia McMahon, a state representative from Sutton, said the Clinton-O'Malley match is a good one: The governor gives her credibility because he's known as an up-and-comer with solid experience in state and local government, and she gives him a boost by selecting him for the job.
"People like me recognize that and are very happy to keep him in mind," McMahon said.
Kathy O'Donnell, an active Democrat who is undecided in the presidential race, got one of the individual meetings with O'Malley. She said he recounted in detail the connections between the O'Malley and O'Donnell families in Ireland. The Keene resident said that she has seen plenty of surrogates over the years, and that the governor was a good one.
"So many times as you go to these things, people kind of blow you off, shake your hand and they're already looking at the next person, but he had a good manner about him," O'Donnell said. But as for winning O'Donnell over for the Clinton campaign, O'Malley didn't quite seal the deal. "She's maybe like fourth or fifth on my list," O'Donnell said of Clinton. "But things can change."