Talk of a Martin O'Malley presidential bid began nearly 15 years ago, when the scrappy councilman from Northeast Baltimore ascended to the mayor's office on a mission to turn his city around.
But after years of speculation, and now months of aggressive campaigning, the aspiration feels distant as Iowans prepare to open the primary season Monday with the nation's first presidential caucus.
Despite running an issue-based campaign heavy on retail politics, the former Maryland governor has failed to gain a foothold in the Hawkeye State against better-known rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
O'Malley had support from 3 percent of likely caucus participants in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll — the same number that backed him in July. For O'Malley, beating expectations may amount to posting a slightly stronger third-place finish than the polls indicate.
Another presidential candidate with Maryland ties, retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, is faring only slightly better.
Since taking a brief lead in the polls last fall, Carson has hemorrhaged support and now significantly trails billionaire Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Once the front-runner, poised to capitalize on Iowa's large evangelical vote, Carson now is aiming to leapfrog Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to finish no better than third.
Carson is polling at an average of 8 percent in Iowa, according to RealClearPolitics — a distant fourth place.
"His only hope is to get third," said Jamie Johnson, a veteran Iowa political operator unaffiliated with any candidate this year.
O'Malley was always in for a challenge running against Clinton, a onetime ally with historically strong support in the party. But he had a more liberal record working in his favor, not to mention a precinct-level knowledge of the state dating back Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign.
"I'm surprised he didn't get traction here in Iowa. He's an attractive candidate," said Daryl Beall, a former state lawmaker.
Beall plans to caucus for Sanders but credited the former governor with running a serious campaign: "I don't understand why Martin O'Malley hasn't done better."
If either O'Malley or Carson performs better than expected, they can claim momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9. If the polls are accurate, though, both could face pressure to bow out and toss their support to someone else.
Carson had about $11.2 million in the bank at the end of September. O'Malley had just over $800,000 on hand, and no prospect of a well-financed third-party group coming to his rescue. Candidates are due to report on Sunday how much they raised in the fourth quarter of 2015.
Both candidates have even less support in New Hampshire and South Carolina than in Iowa, but a stronger-than-expected finish in the caucuses could prompt voters to take another look.
The vagaries of the Iowa caucuses, and the time commitment required from participants, can complicate polling. In 2012, Republican Rick Santorum trailed Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in surveys leading up to the vote, but ended up winning.
O'Malley and Carson supporters emphasize the uncertainty and dismiss the polling.
"The poll numbers? You really can't put much stock in them," said Iowa state Sen. Rich Taylor, who is backing O'Malley. "I see a lot more support ... than they're giving him credit for."
Santorum was polling in the teens at this point four years ago — not the single digits. And the deeply religious former Pennsylvania senator had a natural constituency in evangelical Christians who rallied to his candidacy in the final days.
It's not clear who would make up a similar voting bloc for O'Malley.
Carson and O'Malley entered the election from different corners of the political universe: O'Malley, who turned 53 this month, has long pitched himself as a government wonk, eager to embrace technology to improve bureaucracy. He veered left in his final years in Annapolis, successfully pushing same-sex marriage, tighter gun restrictions and a higher minimum wage, among other policies.
Carson, 64, has pointed to his medical background and his outsider status. No one considered him a candidate for anything until 2013, when he criticized President Barack Obama's heath care law at the National Prayer Breakfast and caught fire with conservatives. It was his lack of political experience that made him attractive to voters looking for significant change.
For O'Malley, in particular, timing has been unlucky — and that may offer a partial explanation if he posts lackluster results in Iowa. He had long prepared for a run but didn't enter the race until May — and found it might have been too late.
When Sanders entered the Democratic race in April, few considered him a threat to the Clinton juggernaut. But the independent senator from Vermont wound up coalescing anti-Clinton voters quickly, taking control of a space O'Malley had hoped to claim.
"When it looked like Hillary was unstoppable, Bernie jumped in and just started working at it," said Jeff Link, an Iowa political strategist who supports Clinton. "Sanders got people excited, and when O'Malley did come in, he tried to take the same lane."
Beall said he agrees with O'Malley on the issues — a need to address income inequality and campaign finance reform, among them. But he feels Sanders has been talking about those issues longer, and louder.
And then there was Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old West Baltimore man who died in April after suffering injuries while in police custody. The protests and riots that followed exposed to a national audience the social and economic problems in a city O'Malley was pointing to as his crowning achievement.
The unrest reopened questions about policing during his two terms as mayor, a record hard to square with his message of modern governance.
Carson's slip in polling, meanwhile, coincided with another series of events: the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. The killings left voters uneasy; Carson's meandering and sometimes inaccurate answers on international affairs did little to ease their fears.
Carson's humble, soft-spoken approach once appealed to voters as a counter to Trump's bombast. Now it raised questions about his ability to handle calamity aggressively.
"In a time of terror you want George Patton, not Mister Rogers," Johnson said.
Carson's campaign manager and chief spokesman quit late last month.
Rob Taylor, co-chair of Carson's Iowa campaign, dismissed the idea that Carson peaked too soon.
"Our goal, from the very beginning, was to come in third or above," he said. "When the polls were showing us in first place, it was Dr. Carson who said to all of us, 'Be humble about being in first place at this time.'"
Analysts say Trump has affected Carson and O'Malley similarly by sucking up the oxygen in the races, starving lesser-known candidates of attention. If Trump wins Iowa, the dynamic could grow stronger.
"Trump has screwed anyone who is not Trump," Link said. "If O'Malley has a good result on Monday night and Trump wins, no one's going to know."
But Norm Sterzenbach, an Iowa political consultant and former director of the state Democratic Party, said O'Malley can stay alive at least through New Hampshire — particularly if candidates agree to a seventh debate on Feb. 4.
The campaigns are negotiating debates in addition to the six initially sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee.
"I would just stick with it, get that extra stage … and ride out New Hampshire — see what happens," Sterzenbach said. "Everybody that I've talked to out here really likes Martin O'Malley.
"But for whatever reason," he added, "caucusgoers just haven't caught on to his message."