CHARLOTTE — — Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley offered pointed criticism of Republicans in an address to the Democratic convention on Tuesday, arguing that President Barack Obama is best suited to right the U.S. economy while GOP nominee Mitt Romney's policies would only move the nation backward.
The Democrat said Obama's policies have helped the middle class despite recession and stubbornly high unemployment — to a crowd that chanted with him, "forward, not back." Though he never mentioned President George W. Bush by name, the address was clearly an attempt to tie Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to the former GOP administration that ended a second term with low approval ratings.
"Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan now say they want to take America back. And so we ask: Back to what? Back to the failed policies that drove us into a deep recession? Back to the days of record job losses?" O'Malley asked. "No, thank you. I don't want to go back."
His address, delivered to more than 5,550 Democrats assembled in the Time Warner Cable Arena, came amid building speculation that O'Malley is positioning himself to run for president in 2016. That prospect has made him a popular guest in television studios and at private receptions taking place outside the convention hall.
But the political chatter about O'Malley's future has also exposed the governor to new lines of scrutiny and criticism. His fiscal policies, in particular, have been questioned at the convention, where Democrats aim to overcome criticism that the president hasn't done enough to fix the economy.
The nine-minute speech, which was carried in the background on the networks, put on display a politician who is far more polished than he was as a wonky Baltimore councilman and mayor. O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, was also a more convincing speaker Tuesday than when he last addressed a national convention in 2004.
Using his characteristically sharp attack lines, O'Malley said Romney favored fewer police officers, firefighters and teachers and suggested that the Republican nominee would raise middle-class taxes while providing breaks to the wealthy.
"Instead of investing in America, they hide their money in Swiss bank accounts and ship our jobs to China," said O'Malley, whose speech hewed closely to the Obama campaign's message. "Swiss bank accounts never built an American bridge. Swiss bank accounts don't put cops on the beat or teachers in our classrooms. Swiss bank accounts never created American jobs."
Sen. Ben Cardin, who is also in Charlotte for the convention, said he was proud of O'Malley for being a "a vigorous advocate for President Obama, while shining a national spotlight" on Maryland. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said that the speech got the crowd fired up at several points.
"To borrow a catchphrase from his address," Ulman said, "his career is moving forward, not back."
Larry Hogan, chairman of Change Maryland, a conservative group, countered that O'Malley's policies in Maryland "have slammed us into reverse and have us stuck in a ditch."
"If Governor O'Malley worked in a bipartisan manner in his six years in office, state government would have made the tough choices needed to restore economic performance," Hogan, a former aide to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said in a statement. "Instead, he criticizes others and relishes partisan attack-dog politics rather than focusing on the hard work of governing."
Over the past several days, O'Malley has demurred on questions about his political ambitions — shifting the focus instead to his party's current presidential nominee. "This is not a time to tell the Martin O'Malley story," the governor told reporters before his speech. "This is the time to tell the Barack Obama story."
But in contrast with other politicians in the mix for 2016, O'Malley has kept a high profile at the Democratic National Convention. He is speaking to delegations from Ohio and Iowa this week — both important states in presidential elections — as well as meeting with Hispanic and Jewish groups and performing with his Celtic rock band, O'Malley's March.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, another potential candidate, plans to spend only a few hours on the ground in Charlotte and will not speak from the podium. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose popularity has soared since Obama beat her for the nomination in 2008, is traveling in Asia.
Yet as O'Malley dashed from event to event on Tuesday, outstanding issues from Maryland followed him. Republicans jumped on news that the state closed the budget year that ended in June with $229 million more in revenue than projected. O'Malley and Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly raised income tax rates this year on those in higher brackets in an effort to bolster the state's finances.
The newfound money does not put the state's fiscal house in order — Maryland continues to wrestle with a long-term structural deficit — but the timing provided an opening for Republicans in Washington and Annapolis. O'Malley has repeatedly been asked about taxes here — a precursor to the constant questioning he would face if he decides to run for higher office.
"At the national level, we're out of money, and we're not competing internationally if we raise taxes," said Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County lawmaker who is one of two Republicans in the state's congressional delegation. "That's the approach the governor is taking in Maryland."
Responding to criticism that has been directed at O'Malley's tenure as governor, his office released a two-page "fact sheet" on the state's economy hours before he took the stage. It noted, for example, that the state has recovered two-thirds of the jobs lost in the "Bush recession" and that its foreclosure rate has been below the national average for two years.
The state's 7 percent unemployment rate remains below the nation's 8.3 percent rate. And the housing crisis has hit other states harder, though the rate of new foreclosure filings in Maryland exceeded any other state's this spring after a flood of new cases followed a national settlement over allegations of mortgage-servicing abuses.
The governor has also been dogged by comments he made Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" in which he said the country was not better off than it was four years ago and that President George W. Bush was to blame. Though the comment was largely in line with Democratic talking points at the time, O'Malley and other campaign surrogates reversed course the next day, promoting the idea that the country was better off, after all.
Republicans pounced and have continued to raise the point — underscoring the damage that can be done when one wrong word is bounced around the 24-hour political news cycle.
"It's just indicative of what's going on with him and the Obama campaign," said state Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican and frequent O'Malley critic. "He speaks the truth about the economy — saying that it's not better — and he immediately gets taken out."
Ahead of his speech, O'Malley met with Maryland's delegation twice, once at breakfast and then at a lunch to honor R. Sargent Shriver, the anti-poverty crusader and Peace Corps founder who died last year. He spoke at a closed event organized by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, and then led a panel on infrastructure spending that included governors Steve Beshear of Kentucky and Brian Schweitzer of Montana.
After his address, O'Malley was set to play with his Celtic rock band at an Irish bar in downtown Charlotte, the first of two shows here. The band has seen new bookings as O'Malley works to shape his national image.
O'Malley avoided any reference to the War of 1812 — often a central theme of his speeches — but nevertheless told a story from the Revolutionary War in which Maryland regiments held off the British at the Battle of Long Island.
"In times of uncertainty — for the country we love — Maryland always chooses to move forward," O'Malley said. "Progress is a choice. Job creation is a choice. … That is what this election is all about."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.