Martin O'Malley announced his candidacy for president Saturday with a progressive pitch targeted at a generation of Americans he said is yearning for a new approach to the nation's problems.
But after his speech, as supporters ambled off Federal Hill and O'Malley boarded a plane to Iowa, the question that has hung over the former two-term Maryland governor for months still lingered: Does he have a plausible path to the White House?
With Baltimore's skyline as his backdrop, the 52-year-old Democrat framed next year's election in economic terms. He decried widening income inequality and suggested corporate interests were squeezing middle-class families out of opportunities their parents once took for granted.
"We are allowing our land of opportunity to become a land of inequality," O'Malley told several hundred supporters. "Main Street struggles, while Wall Street soars."
O'Malley enters the race for the Democratic nomination as an underdog, forced to campaign in the shadow of Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state.
Nationally, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, 80 percent of Americans don't even know enough about him to form an opinion.
Clinton captured the support of 57 percent of respondents.
"I think she's unstoppable," said Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations who sought the Democratic nomination in 2008.
"However, I think O'Malley in the last few months has been developing positively as a candidate," he said.
Richardson said he has spoken with O'Malley at length about foreign policy.
O'Malley supporters say that they are comfortable with the long odds and that what seems inevitable today can look different tomorrow.
Though it may be narrow, analysts say there is a course for O'Malley to steer. His first step is to deal with Bernie Sanders.
The independent senator from Vermont, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, made a splash last month with his own presidential announcement and has emerged as the top alternative for liberals unsatisfied with Clinton. Polls show him in second place, with around 15 percent of the vote in Iowa.
That's support O'Malley needs to capture and consolidate.
"He has to find a way to inch over Bernie," Richardson said.
Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, agreed.
"This is a referendum on whether voters want Hillary to be the Democratic nominee," he said. "O'Malley has to establish himself as the alternative to Hillary, as opposed to Bernie Sanders."
O'Malley will be helped in that effort by a whirlwind of liberal accomplishments he achieved as governor, particularly during his second term. His administration shepherded the legalization of gay marriage, a minimum-wage increase, tougher gun laws, a repeal of the death penalty and landmark policies to help immigrants who are in the country illegally.
But he'll have to fend off setbacks faced by his administration, including the loss of his lieutenant governor, Anthony G. Brown, in last year's gubernatorial election. Republican Larry Hogan won in part by tying Brown to O'Malley's policies — specifically tax increases on income, gas, and sales.
A few elected officials turned out for O'Malley on Saturday — including Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III — but most already have endorsed Clinton.
"I've worked with him," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who was wandering through the crowds. "I think his record is second to none."
O'Malley's record was a theme he raised repeatedly during the speech. He said his administration represented a new approach to governing that would work well in the White House. His newly designed campaign signs included the slogan "new leadership," a subtle dig at the Clinton legacy.
"Recently, the CEO of Goldman Sachs let his employees know that he'd be just fine with either Bush or Clinton," O'Malley said.
"I bet he would."
Analysts say O'Malley must camp out in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The Iowa caucuses dramatically shifted the course of the race for the Democratic nomination in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama upset Clinton there by running as a change candidate. O'Malley was set to visit both states this weekend.
"You need to really spend time here doing retail politics," said Tom Henderson, the Democratic chairman in Polk County, Iowa, home to Des Moines. "It's getting in a van and going from town to town and meeting with voters."
O'Malley may be best known as the young, brash, guitar-playing councilman improbably elected to lead a majority African-American city beset by poverty, blight and violent crime. He embraced a new way of thinking about management — relying on data to measure the time it took to fill potholes and fix streetlights — and a tough policing strategy that drove down violent crime.
The strategy was controversial then, and recent high-profile police brutality cases have only elevated the debate. Though he is eight years removed from City Hall, O'Malley's record became a central political issue in the riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray.
Gray, a 25-year-old from Baltimore, died last month after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody — the latest in the national series of African-American men to die at the hands of police.
O'Malley addressed the riots Saturday. He said the experience, for him, was about more than just policing or race.
It was, he said, "about everything it is supposed to mean to be an American."
"For all of us who have given so much of our energies to making our city a safer, fairer and more prosperous place, that was a heartbreaking night for all of us," he said. "For us, Baltimore is our country and our country is Baltimore."
But the nod to the West Baltimore neighborhoods out of view from Federal Hill didn't appease a small group of protesters who heckled O'Malley during his speech, blowing whistles and shouting.
"What about Freddie Gray?" one man yelled.
"Black lives matter," shouted another.
Because the state's primary comes late in the calendar, what Marylanders think about O'Malley — good or bad — ultimately might not matter.
Outside of the state, supporters see O'Malley's executive experience as a major selling point. The shouts from the protesters Saturday could be heard clearly by those in the park, but they didn't register for those watching on television.
"He just needs to do what he's always done, which is be a leader," said Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina state lawmaker who is supporting O'Malley. "He'll show his vision for America and for the next generation. I think he's the only one capable of doing that."
Maryland has never produced a president, and has only rarely offered up a serious candidate. Alan Keyes, who lives in Montgomery County, ran for the GOP nomination in 1996, 2000 and 2008. The last Maryland governor to seek the presidency was Albert C. Ritchie. He lost the Democratic nomination to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
But presidential history is also replete with insurgent candidates challenging giants, and sometimes performing better than expected. O'Malley got his start in politics on Gary Hart's 1984 presidential run. The little-known senator from Colorado polled in single digits early, but wound up competing with the eventual nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale, through June.
That points to another challenge O'Malley has before him: He must find a way to draw distinctions with Clinton without overtly attacking her.
That task will be complicated by O'Malley's enthusiastic support of Clinton during the 2008 campaign.
O'Malley called Clinton before making his announcement. In a tweet — Clinton's only public reaction to O'Malley's entrance — she welcomed him to the race.
"It would be difficult for anybody to take Hillary on, unless she self-implodes," said Bannon, the Democratic strategist. "But you know, who knows? Strange things happen in politics."
Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
A look at the other announced candidates for president.
•Hillary Clinton: The former secretary of state, first lady and senator from New York is the front-runner in polls.
•Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: Currently occupying the space to the left of Clinton that O'Malley would like to claim.
•Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: The first to enter the race is known as a conservative firebrand.
•Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul: A first-term lawmaker, he gained attention for recently opposing NSA data collection.
•Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: The son of Cuban immigrants, he is less well-known than other conservatives in the running.
•Ben Carson: The retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon is making his first run for office.
•Carly Fiorina: The former Hewlett-Packard chief ran an unsuccessful campaign for Senate in California in 2010.
•Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: The folksy conservative won the Iowa caucuses in 2008.
•Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum: Hoping to capture the magic that led to his second-place finish in 2012.
•Former New York Gov. George Pataki: The former three-term governor has flirted with a run for years.
Long legacy in Md.
A timeline of significant events in O'Malley's life.
1963: Born in Washington, D.C.
1985: Graduates from Catholic University of America
1991: Elected to Baltimore City Council
1999: Elected mayor of Baltimore
2002: Launches "Believe" campaign
2003: Wins second term as mayor of Baltimore
2006: Elected governor of Maryland
2010: Wins second term as governor
2012: Maryland voters approve same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for immigrant students
2013: Signs repeal of state's death penalty
2014: Signs increase in state's minimum wage