CHARLOTTE, N.C. — — When Gov. Martin O'Malley takes the stage at the Democratic convention to give the most important speech of his political career, he'll have to deliver on one deceptively simple goal: He'll need to make people want to hear more.
As an increasingly polished speaker and in-demand message man for his party, O'Malley will have an opportunity in Charlotte to solidify his standing as a possible presidential candidate in 2016. He'll also get the chance to redeem himself from the last time he stood on a convention stage eight years ago and flubbed it with a speech criticized as pretentious.
"He will have two missions — first and foremost is to help Barack Obama with his reelection for president," said former Sen. Evan Bayh, who gave the keynote address at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "But in so doing, [he'll] also project a sense of himself, his biography, his leadership in Maryland and his vision for the country."
More than 5,550 Democrats, including 148 from Maryland, are gathering in North Carolina starting Tuesday to nominate Obama for a second term. The three-day convention takes place days after Republicans formally selected Mitt Romney as their candidate, and the meeting's conclusion will signal the unofficial start of the 2012 general election.
Conventions also set a political hierarchy for the years ahead, and that inevitably leads to speculation and positioning for the next election. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and O'Malley are the names most frequently discussed as candidates in 2016.
But O'Malley set off a minor storm Sunday when asked on CBS's "Face the Nation" whether voters were better off today than they were four years ago.
"No, but that's not the question of this election," O'Malley said, arguing that the relevant contrast was with George W. Bush. Republicans, including Romney's campaign, jumped on that response, though it was similar to one offered by Obama in an interview months ago.
By Monday morning, O'Malley and other campaign surrogates had changed course.
"We are clearly better off as a country because we're now creating jobs rather than losing them," O'Malley said on CNN's "Starting Point." "But we have not recovered all that we lost in the Bush recession. That's why we need to continue to move forward."
A speech at a national convention provides an unparalleled platform for a rising political star. Barack Obama, an obscure state lawmaker from Illinois in 2004, burst onto the national stage with his keynote address at the convention that year in Boston, credentialing him for a presidential run four years later.
At the same time, a lousy speech doesn't necessarily doom a speaker. In his 1988 address to set up the nomination of Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton not only rambled on past his allotted time, he was jeered by pundits and delegates on the floor as he spoke.
Clinton, of course, went on to win the White House, and is considered among his party's top wordsmiths.
O'Malley is scheduled to speak about 10 o'clock Tuesday night.
His ability as a speaker already has been tested and clearly grown since his time in City Hall and his early years in Annapolis.
Now in his second term as governor and the current chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, he has emerged as one of his party's top spokesmen. His quick, often acerbic criticism of the Republican Party has made him a darling of the Washington press corps and a go-to guest on the Sunday morning political shows.
"I don't think there's any boxes he has to check," veteran political analyst Charlie Cook said. "He just needs to impress people and make them think, 'That guy has potential.'"
Delivering a convention speech, though, is an entirely different experience from taking questions at a press conference or being interviewed in a studio. The audience at a convention is rarely quiet for all but the very top officials. Instead delegates mingle, move around and make noise.
For those speakers "auditioning" for 2016, Bayh said, "the most important audience is in the hall."
Bayh, a former governor and senator from Indiana who considered a run for the White House in 2008, described the scene: "You're going to have thousands and thousands of the most important political activists, campaign contributors, organizers, et cetera."
The second audience is the one watching from home. And "getting on their radar screen is not unimportant," he said.
Making an impact on television viewers is a particular challenge, Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson said. "It's hard to impress a television audience with oratory," he said. "There are few people who are able to do it."
Tone is especially important, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie learned after his keynote address at the Republican convention last week in Tampa. He was criticized for talking more about Chris Christie than Mitt Romney.
Conventions are designed primarily to boost the presidential candidate, not individual speakers, said Democratic former congressman Kweisi Mfume.
"The focus should be on the nominee and the vice presidential nominee — you really downplay yourself," said Mfume, who spoke at the 2004 convention and is a delegate for Obama next week. "You want to deliver with sincerity, you want to have some authority, you want to have some humor and you want to downplay yourself."
Obama might present the most powerful example of the potential a convention speaking slot offers for political advancement. A candidate for the Senate in 2004, he used his keynote address to introduce himself to a divided nation as a figure of conciliation.
"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America," he told the delegates in Boston. "There's the United States of America."
The widely cited speech didn't get Democratic nominee John Kerry elected president in 2004, but it established the political persona that would help Obama win the White House four years later.
At the same convention, O'Malley gave an address remembered, if at all, as a high-flown misfire.
"America the beautiful, whose alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears," the then-mayor of Baltimore said in one of its most notorious passages. "Oh, my friends, to govern is to choose."
"There was a lot of grandiloquence," said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University. "It looked like a young guy lacking confidence who was trying to be profound. And that kind of rubs a lot of old heads the wrong way."
Vatz says O'Malley is unlikely to fall into the same trap again. After two statewide elections and six years as governor, he said, O'Malley "is going to feel as if he belongs more."
About 22 million viewers tuned in to watch addresses by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan during this past week's Republican convention. That was down from more than 37 million who watched in 2008, when Sarah Palin was the party's pick for vice president.
Put another way, convention speeches are increasingly targeted at party insiders and pundits as much as they are voters, most of whom are still sorting out their choice for 2012, let alone 2016.
"We'll all be evaluating him every time he takes a breath for the next four years," said Stuart Rothenberg, another respected Washington-based political analyst. "It's an opportunity, and if you're Martin O'Malley you want to take every opportunity to make a good impression, to be smart and interesting, and show some charisma."
Donald F. Norris, who chairs the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, sees only upside for the governor.
"This is a huge opportunity for O'Malley, and clearly it has come in recognition of his rising star within the party," he said. "My guess is nothing but good can come from this for his political career."
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger says O'Malley will be ready.
"Martin's a phenomenal speaker," said the Baltimore County Democrat, who will head to Charlotte this week. "He'll do our state proud."