Martin O'Malley is preparing to step onto the biggest stage of his political career Tuesday for a debate that analysts say could make or break his long-shot and long-standing ambition to be president.
The stakes could not be higher for the two-term Maryland governor, whose bid for the Democratic nomination has struggled to capture attention and money despite an aggressive and occasionally unorthodox campaign style.
For millions of voters, the debate will be an introduction to a man who has been well known in Maryland politics since he unexpectedly won a race for mayor in Baltimore 16 years ago.
Five Democratic candidates, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, will be on stage in Las Vegas for a two-hour debate that will be broadcast on CNN.
A poignant line — or a flubbed retort — could make the difference between building momentum or remaining in the doldrums, experts said. With the Iowa caucus less than four months away, there aren't many similar opportunities remaining for O'Malley.
"This is it. This is his chance," said Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic strategist who is now director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University.
"If he does not seize the opportunity to break through in this debate, then I think he's going to have to take a step back and figure out a new rationale for his candidacy."
Although O'Malley has failed to gain traction — he's polling at around 3 percent in Iowa — analysts have warned against writing him off, in part because he is an unknown quantity on the presidential debate stage. Republicans Carly Fiorina and former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who were in a similar position earlier this year, used early debates to energize their campaigns.
For O'Malley, it won't be about dominating the discussion — that is unlikely, given the expected focus on Clinton and Sanders. Instead, O'Malley needs to create a moment that captures attention in the days after the event, said longtime Democratic strategist Joe Trippi.
"If he can do that, that's success," Trippi said. "If you're going to start having traction nationally after this debate, you've got to have a moment."
As an example, Trippi noted former Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's performance leading up to the 1988 Democratic primary, when he criticized Illinois Sen. Paul Simon for promising to cut budget deficits while increasing spending. Gephardt said, "Simonomics is really Reaganomics with a bow tie," a reference to his opponent's signature neckwear. The quip made news across the country.
Trippi and others said it is too early to discount O'Malley's ability to influence the race. For one thing, the field is still in flux, with Clinton's numbers softening recently in New Hampshire and Vice President Joe Biden's potential candidacy looming.
Democratic operative Matt Angle said O'Malley's debate performance will be important, but he also believes that the current political landscape gives the Marylander room to build support.
"I'm in the camp that even though Bernie Sanders is doing much better, ultimately, those Democrats [supporting him] will look for another option," Angle said.
No matter how the race shakes out, Angle believes O'Malley has done a decent job of setting up his prospects. In that sense, O'Malley needs to be careful in how he comes across Tuesday. Mean-spirited attacks could hurt O'Malley in the long run, Angle said.
"He's established himself as a very formidable Democratic future leader," Angle said. "Our bench is not deep enough nationally. We haven't had a lot of [younger] leaders emerge during the Obama years."
So far, O'Malley has been unable to capitalize on those dynamics. He barely registers in national polls, and while Clinton and Sanders have announced eye-popping fundraising numbers in the third quarter, O'Malley has yet to disclose how much he raised — a potential sign that the number, when it is reported, won't be very high.
And yet the former Maryland governor has managed to influence the field in some ways. His initially lonely call for the Democratic National Committee to sanction more than six debates has been echoed by the other candidates, though party leaders have stuck with the original plan.
And O'Malley was the first presidential candidate to argue that the United States should accept a far higher share of the refugees fleeing the violence in Syria — an idea that has since been embraced by Clinton and others.
Heading into the debate, O'Malley has sought to turn up the heat on Clinton, his onetime ally. He criticized Clinton's decision to oppose the Pacific Rim trade deal being negotiated by President Barack Obama — pointing out that she supported the deal when she was a member of the Obama administration.
In an era of viral Internet videos, O'Malley has also drawn attention for unconventional campaigning. Earlier this year, O'Malley, the leader of an Irish rock band, released video of himself strumming his guitar on Wall Street and singing "This Land is Your Land." In the video, people are seen throwing money into his guitar case.
He has also promised to write songs for individual donors.
O'Malley has remained mum about his expectations for the debate — and his efforts to prepare. He said Wednesday that he is doing mock debates, but his campaign declined to say who was standing in for Clinton and Sanders.
He has, however, acknowledged the importance of the night, saying that most voters are aware only of Sanders and Clinton, whom he refers to, with sarcasm, as "the inevitable front-runner." The debate, O'Malley said, will give everyone a chance to be heard.
"I think these debates are make-or-break moments for every campaign," he said Wednesday. "We're trying to imagine and prepare for the thousands of questions that could be asked when you're up there on the stage."
O'Malley's language has often come across as stilted in high-profile settings, such as during his two appearances at Democratic national conventions — one in 2004, when he was mayor, and more recently in 2012. His attempt to lead a huge crowd in a chant of "Forward, not back" in 2012 was panned by most as awkward and ineffective in the unruly convention hall.
But those who follow O'Malley closely say he often performs better off script, such as in his frequent appearances on Sunday political shows as a surrogate for Obama in 2012.
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, is one of the few people who has debated O'Malley. They tussled in 2006, when O'Malley unseated Ehrlich as governor, and then four years later when Ehrlich returned for a rematch.
Ehrlich demurred on the specifics of O'Malley's language and approach to a debate, but he noted that the two disagreed on format.
Ehrlich, who also flirted with a presidential campaign this year and is now running a political action committee, sought a more freewheeling discussion in 2010. O'Malley wanted a standard, moderated debate.
"He's comfortable with structure," Ehrlich said.
Ruth Sherman, a speech consultant who has worked with celebrities and business leaders, said O'Malley is generally a good communicator, but sometimes comes off as reading — rather than speaking — his central points.
Avoiding that kind of delivery, she said, will be important if he is to have a successful night.
"When he's off script, he's much better," Sherman said. "He could be the next breakout star. He could be the next Carly Fiorina. Why not?"