For Democratic presidential candidates not named Hillary Clinton, Tuesday night’s debate is a chance to introduce themselves and their ideas to millions of Americans and, if they’re lucky, convince those potential voters to care.
Martin O'Malley needs it to work.
The former Maryland governor has been stuck at the bottom of polls for months, and the nationally televised debate alongside Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is his best opportunity to turn things around. But he'll have to avoid old rhetorical pitfalls that risk boring viewers—and land punches against Clinton and Sanders that the front-runners haven't been willing to throw against each other so far.
“He tends to get a little stiff and formal and sometimes quotes an Irish poet or reaches for a War of 1812 metaphor,” a pattern that “tends to fall flat,” said Ron Cassie, a senior editor at Baltimore Magazine who has covered Maryland politics for more than a decade. “An area where he does shine,” Cassie said, is rattling off facts and figures. “He’s combative, he’s competitive in that environment. And that kind of give-and-take is really more up his alley.”
Tuesday's debate will be O'Malley's biggest moment in the spotlight since the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012. Sandwiched between fellow rising stars in the party such as Deval Patrick and Julian Castro, he used the prime-time slot to praise President Barack Obama’s record, rail against Swiss bank accounts, and wax poetic about Revolutionary War heroes and America, “the greatest job-generating, opportunity-expanding country ever created by a free people in the history of civilization!”
The reviews were mixed. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish said that “O’Malley improved as he went along.” Writer Peter Beinart tweeted, “10 more minutes of O'Malley and I’ll vote for Romney.” The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza said O’Malley’s enthusiasm came off as “manufactured not organic,” adding: “O’Malley came into his speech tonight with high expectations ... Those expectations turned out to be too high.”
O'Malley's supporters say he has more than one setting. “I’m sure we’re gonna hear from the poet and the patriot, and it’ll be how he reveals those two sides of him at the right time that will be so critical,” said Damian O’Doherty, CEO of the super-PAC Generation Forward. The “patriot” is the man with 15 years of executive experience, as the candidate and his supporters often note (his campaign declined to comment for this story).
Last week, Generation Forward started airing an ad on Iowa TV touting his record. “Actions speak louder than words,” says the ad, which plays clips of Clinton, Sanders, and several Republican candidates making promises.
The problem is, actions haven't proven to speak louder than name recognition. O'Malley got a burst of (sometimes critical) exposure during the spring riots over the fatal injury of a black man in police custody in Baltimore, where he served as mayor from 1999 to 2007. And he's gained some traction as the most aggressive advocate of adding debates to the Democratic primary calendar.
But his efforts putting forward “bold, progressive” plans on issues ranging from student loans to immigration to Wall Street regulations haven't paid off yet—in fact, he moved from 1 percent support in a national CNN poll in May, when he declared his candidacy, to zero percent in October.
“For him, really, it all begins next Tuesday,” Steve Kearney, a former communications director for O’Malley in Baltimore and the governor’s office, said last week. “That’s the first time people across the country will have to see him, that’s the beginning of his opportunity to have a broader impact on the race.”
The GOP nomination fight may hold some lessons for O'Malley. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson enjoyed poll bounces after their last debate—and others, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, turned in forgettable performances.
“You can be nothing and suddenly be something,” said Iowa-based pollster J. Ann Selzer, who conducts surveys for Bloomberg Politics. “It's also true that you can be nothing and also continue to be nothing.”
Recent events including the Oregon community college shooting and Clinton's decision to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal have highlighted potential targets for O'Malley at the debate—against Sanders on gun control and Clinton as a flip-flopper—and he's indicated he's preparing to take those shots.
“There’s a big difference between leadership and following polls,” O’Malley said on MSNBC on Friday, visibly amused by host Chris Hayes’s mention of the former secretary of state's opposition to TPP. “Unlike the weather vane that blows in the wind, I know where I stand.”
—Ali Elkin contributed to this report.