WASHINGTON — In the rare moments when he speaks candidly about running for president, Gov. Martin O'Malley uses phrases such as "fundamentally newer" and "new way of leadership" to describe his approach — language intended to highlight the data-driven management style for which he is widely recognized.
But it isn't hard to read another, more subtle message between the lines: The young, guitar-slinging governor represents a more youthful crop of Democrats, while the presumed front-runner for the nomination in 2016, Hillary Clinton, might struggle to do so.
As he winds down his final months in Annapolis and crisscrosses the country in anticipation of a full-scale national campaign, O'Malley has delicately tried to draw contrasts with the former first lady, senator and secretary of state without appearing confrontational — or even using her name.
Observers say the soft touch reflects the treacherous path O'Malley must tread as he tries to set himself apart from a longtime ally. O'Malley backed Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary that was eventually won by Barack Obama, and the two appear to have maintained a good relationship.
"He's a newer voice, a younger voice," said Michael Stratton, a Colorado-based Democratic presidential campaign operative. "He has this other important, worldly experience of being down in the neighborhoods and turning things around attitudinally in Baltimore."
The governor has ramped up his out-of-state travel this year ahead of the midterm elections in November, pointing to his executive experience and blaming Republicans for gridlock in Washington. This weekend's schedule included visits to New Hampshire and Nevada — both early presidential primary states — and he planned to attend a fundraiser in Hollywood Sunday.
But early polls show the governor remains largely unknown outside Maryland. Six in 10 likely primary voters in New Hampshire said they would back Clinton, should she choose to run, compared with 1 percent who named O'Malley in a survey this month by CNN/Opinion Research.
Clinton also outperforms O'Malley in Maryland by a nearly 10-to-1 margin, a poll for The Baltimore Sun showed in February.
One challenge for O'Malley, then, is to demonstrate to donors and voters what he would bring to a campaign that Clinton would not. The governor has frequently said he is considering a run for president and he told The Washington Post this month that he will probably make a decision by the time his second term in Annapolis ends in January.
O'Malley, 51, often emphasizes the executive experience he has gained during two terms as governor and seven years as mayor of Baltimore. The speech he delivers around the country focuses heavily on his efforts to reduce crime, drug addiction and blight during his time at City Hall.
"A natural way for him to distinguish himself is the fact that he's been a governor and mayor," said Shaun Adamec, a communications consultant and former O'Malley aide in the State House. "Executive leadership brings a certain perspective that's not lost on him."
Clinton, 66, has executive experience, too. She ran the State Department under Obama for four years, and played an active role in Bill Clinton's two terms in the White House and 10 years as governor of Arkansas.
O'Malley has never publicly discussed Clinton's age or planted doubts about returning the Clintons to Washington eight years after Obama galvanized young voters with his progressive oratory. Polls show that many Democrats hold the Clinton White House in higher regard than Obama's.
But with words and images, the governor has tried to appeal to younger voters by concentrating on the intersection of government and technology, stepping up the frequency of performances with his Celtic rock band, O'Malley's March, and co-forming a nonprofit in 2012 that works with young elected Democrats.
"What I look at is the challenges that our country faces, and I love my country and I know that we can do better," O'Malley said in an interview in July. "And I have been twice given executive trust by people I serve and both times been able to bring people together in a fundamentally newer, more modern, more collaborative way to achieve important things."
The most direct shot O'Malley has taken at Clinton centered on the increased flow of unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the U.S. border with Mexico this spring. He told reporters in July that the United States is not a country that "should turn children away and send them back to certain death."
That comment was widely viewed as being critical of the Obama administration, particularly after the White House engaged with him in a rare public spat.
But the stance also broke with comments Clinton had made a month earlier during a town hall meeting aired by CNN, when she said the country must "send a clear message [that] just because your child gets across the border doesn't mean your child gets to stay."
A Clinton spokesman declined to comment on O'Malley.
The governor has long enjoyed strong ties with the Clintons. He was among the first to back Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, and Bill Clinton came to Maryland to campaign for O'Malley in 2006 and again in 2010.
It is not clear whether the governor would seek the Democratic nomination if Clinton declared her candidacy. O'Malley, who declined to elaborate on the matter in an interview with The Baltimore Sun this year, has told other media outlets that he will lay the groundwork for a campaign regardless of what Clinton decides.
But that's different from committing to challenge her.
The two are expected to appear together Tuesday at a fundraiser for Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who is running to succeed O'Malley as governor.
"He's a got a relationship with the Clintons," Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wrote in an email. "And I don't know how you run against someone without ticking them off."
Politically, O'Malley has a host of liberal accomplishments to show to Democratic voters: repealing the state's death penalty, raising the minimum wage and pushing the legalization of same-sex marriage through the General Assembly.
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He accomplished many of those goals after others in his party. But that's not likely to be an issue for voters, several Democratic strategists said, in part because he was ahead of most of his counterparts around the country.
Bill Carrick, a Democratic campaign consultant in California, said O'Malley's progressive bona fides might give him more opportunity than others to draw a contrast with Clinton. But he said the governor has significant work ahead to alter an outcome that, for now, many believe is inevitable.
"People anticipate that Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive nominee," Carrick said. "The question is, what space is available for anybody else?"
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.