WASHINGTON — House Democrats were wrapping up a meeting with Martin O'Malley on Capitol Hill last month when an influential New York lawmaker tossed an arm around the shoulders of Rep. Eric Swalwell of California.
Swalwell was the only member of Congress who had endorsed O'Malley's presidential bid. The gesture by Rep. Joseph Crowley was meant to console him at a time when the former Maryland governor was stuck in the single digits.
"Don't worry," the fellow Democrat told Swalwell. "O'Malley's got a future."
As O'Malley began to pick up the pieces from his failed presidential campaign Tuesday, his supporters were beginning to speculate about exactly what that future might look like for the two-term governor, and whether he would have a voice in politics, or try another run for office.
Neither O'Malley's campaign, nor officials at Generation Forward, the super PAC that has supported him, responded Tuesday to The Baltimore Sun's questions about his future.
O'Malley's results at the Iowa caucuses were worse than the already-low expectations set by months of poor polling. After an aggressive campaign that was heavy on retail politics, O'Malley walked onto the stage Monday night with less than 1 percent of the vote, prompting him to quickly bow out.
Still, O'Malley ran what even nonsupporters described as a disciplined, issues-focused campaign. He worked hard on the trail, was accessible to voters and was the first candidate to issue detailed positions on immigration, gun control, wage inequality and other issues important to Democrats.
"He doesn't only say what he values, he's got a record of delivering on it, and I think that gives him a very bright future in the party," Swalwell said. He met O'Malley when O'Malley was mayor of Baltimore, and spoke at a class he was taking at the University of Maryland.
O'Malley's future will be easier to predict if a Democrat wins the White House — particularly if it is Hillary Clinton, a onetime ally. In that case, O'Malley could reasonably be considered for a position in Clinton's Cabinet — as secretary of homeland security, for instance, or transportation.
O'Malley, 53, was generally careful in his criticism of Clinton and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — some said too careful. But he grew increasingly strident in pointing out the difference in age between himself and Clinton, who is 68.
That line of argument probably reached its apex — or, depending on one's perspective, its nadir — in mid-December. During a debate, O'Malley jumped into an argument over U.S. policy in Syria by asking if he could "offer a different generation's perspective on this?"
The line drew boos from the audience.
Clinton supporters had long been sensitive to O'Malley's barbs. Months earlier, at a time when O'Malley's language around the age difference was far softer, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm — a Clinton surrogate — warned that O'Malley had "better watch it" if he was interested in a spot in Clinton's Cabinet.
Still, several observers said they don't believe Clinton will hold it against O'Malley — despite her family's famously long memory for political enemies.
"It's the nature of these contests that they get spirited and contrasts get drawn and we move on after the voters decide," Swalwell said.
A Clinton spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Were it not for the disastrous rollout of Maryland's health insurance exchange in 2013, O'Malley could fit well at the Department of Health and Human Services, Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said.
His background leading both a state and a city could make him an attractive pick for Transportation, Labor or Homeland Security, others said.
"I think he'll get a pass on doing so poorly in Iowa because he was basically just lost in the shuffle," Bannon said. "I think he could definitely be considered for a Cabinet position in a Clinton administration."
Still, several analysts said it is unlikely anyone would choose O'Malley as a running mate.
The possibility he might help a presidential candidate in Maryland doesn't offer much to a Democratic ticket: The state is small and already votes Democratic in a general election.
Vice President Joe Biden came from a small Democratic state, but his blue-collar background, folksy style and foreign policy experience helped balance Barack Obama's more professorial approach and relative inexperience on the Democrats' 2008 ticket.
O'Malley, by contrast, wouldn't offer Clinton or Sanders much in the way of racial, geographic or ideological diversity.
It's also unlikely that O'Malley will jump into the race for the Maryland Senate seat being left open by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Candidates have until Wednesday night to file, but the once-popular former governor hasn't polled well in the state since the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, when many of this policies — particularly tax increases — were up for debate.
He'd have to build a political operation from scratch to compete in the Democratic primary against Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen — both of whom have been running for nearly a year.
"That race is too far down the line," Bannon predicted.
As it became clear O'Malley wasn't going to break through in the presidential race, many leading Democrats — including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — described him as someone who could have a voice in the party, in the future. He's still relatively young, the argument went, and might be in a position to give a campaign another try in four or eight years.
"While he didn't earn many votes," said Democratic strategist Matt Angle, "he actually earned a lot of people's respect."
"Assuming that he supports Hillary, I certainly would believe that he's someone who would be considered for important work going forward."
For now, O'Malley faces a big hurdle to a future in politics: relevance. And that's why, whatever he does next will be so important.
"He just brings so much that we need right now," said Mary Rauh, a co-chair of O'Malley's effort in New Hampshire. "I am hoping very much that this will not be his last run for the presidency."