A tarnished star

At this convention, O'Malley no longer hot young attraction

Election 2008

August 27, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,david.nitkin@baltsun.com

The past couple of years have left some tarnish on one of Maryland's once-sparkling political leaders.

Martin O'Malley arrived at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston with the swagger of one of the party's young stars, granted a prime speaking spot even though he had backed Howard Dean over nominee John Kerry.

Four years later, things have changed.

O'Malley is a governor, not a mayor, after becoming the only challenger in the nation to defeat an incumbent governor in 2006.

But in just a few months, his approval numbers slipped below 40 percent after pushing a sales tax increase - coupled with spending cuts and a slots plan - to try to solve a festering state budget mess.

Then he supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, appearing to buck the desires of his constituents in a state that went heavily for Barack Obama.

So he arrived in Denver this week with relatively little fanfare for someone who many believe has nurtured aspirations for higher office.

Yesterday, 10 of the nation's 28 Democratic governors were given time on the stage inside Denver's Pepsi Center.

But not O'Malley. The omission reflects his early support of Hillary Clinton, and the fact that his home state of Maryland is not in play.

"If you miss the train leaving the station, you have to dig a little deeper for a ticket," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.

He may be the highest-profile Marylander without a featured role. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen were speakers last night, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings goes tonight.

O'Malley accepts his fate.

"There were a lot of people who supported Senator Obama early, and I was not one of them," the governor said. "He understandably feels an amount of loyalty and obligation, I am sure, to make sure that they are given an opportunity - especially if they risked a lot politically by coming out early for him."

O'Malley's challenge now is to recast his image, from young star to competent manager of the type that goes on to be mentioned as a national figure. Raising taxes was the responsible thing to do, he has argued in op-ed pieces that have appeared in national newspapers, a line echoed by many of his supporters.

"Four years ago he was a .400 hitter in Triple-A ball. Now he's batting .285 in the big leagues," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.

"He's made a huge leap in terms of his career, in terms of responsibilities," Frosh said. "If you step back from the poll numbers, he had a very successful two years as governor."

O'Malley's support of Clinton was a repayment of a political debt. Bill Clinton had campaigned for him, helping mobilize voters in Baltimore.

It was also a calculated gamble. If it paid off, his name could be in the mix for any number of high-ranking administration jobs. But it didn't.

"I know he's taken a few arrows, but he is still standing," said Cummings.

O'Malley faces a test this fall, when a referendum on slot-machine gambling appears on the ballot. After years of stalemates in Annapolis, the governor succeeded in passing a slots bill as part of his budget-balancing plan.

If the slots bill fails, the state government will lose an expected hundreds of millions in yearly revenue, making the governor's job that much harder.

But with so much at stake, he has been barely visible as a proponent for slots. He can't afford to make it a referendum on him.

"I can understand anybody being a little gun-shy," said an independent Maryland pollster, Patrick Gonzales. "His numbers are kind of down; the Democratic primary didn't go the way he hoped. It's understandable."

With the economy remaining the top issue for voters, Gonzales said he "would be surprised to see a dramatic rebound" in O'Malley's ratings. "The incumbents always get blamed when the economy is in the tank," Gonzales said.

Maryland Republicans are eager to push the image of a weakened governor.

"The reason he is unpopular is not just because people are in a bad mood," said Justin Ready, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "He is unpopular because in a sour economic time, when the cost of living on everything is going up, he and the Democrats in the legislature did exactly what economists would tell you not to do, which is to raise taxes."

All in all, O'Malley's prospects remain fairly bright. He is the favorite to win re-election, even in a possible rematch against Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., most political observers say.

If Obama wins and there is a Democrat in the White House, Maryland - as usual - would become a popular backdrop for the unrolling of new programs.

And if Obama loses, O'Malley would be well positioned to keep building a national standing through the Democratic Leadership Council and the Democratic Governors Association, groups in which he is active.

As DGA finance chairman, O'Malley is helping to raise $20 million for 11 races this year, in the process building connections with a web of national leaders.

O'Malley's "political acumen and focus on effective policy solutions will make him a top Democratic leader for many years to come," said the DGA's executive director, Nathan Daschle.

O'Malley says his focus in Denver is about helping the state delegation stay energized and focused on the fall campaign - with volunteers motivated enough to spend time in neighboring battleground states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania.

"My job is to make sure ... that we come back from this convention as not an insular delegation, but a delegation that comes back very motivated to expand and grow the volunteer corps," he said.

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