CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Can a charismatic liberal Democratic governor from a small blue state with a history of raising taxes win the presidency? Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley looks certain to test that proposition in 2016.
Like a passel of other potential presidential candidates here at the Democratic National Convention, the term-limited two-term governor has been working the convention breakfast circuit and back rooms as hard as he can - even singing in his own Irish rock band in a few late-night gigs and getting a coveted prime-time speaking slot on Tuesday. Like the others, O'Malley has been careful to avoid explicit 2016 talk, saying he's solely focused on his role as a top surrogate for President Barack Obama and helping grow the party's gubernatorial ranks as head of the Democratic Governors Association.
"This is not a time to tell the Martin O'Malley story," O'Malley told reporters in one of his many media scrums this week as he races from event to event.
But his allies have long eyed an O'Malley presidential run, and with it, the return of a more aggressive, progressive brand of Democratic Party politics.
At the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, some of O'Malley's supporters even joked to this reporter about an "O'Malley/O'Bama all-Irish ticket" in 2012 as then-state Sen. Obama's keynote speech shot him to national prominence.
O'Malley serves up one part old-time liberalism, one part efficiency czar and one part partisan attack dog wrapped up in a handsome Irish Catholic package.
And he hasn't shied away from the press, talking for more than 20 minutes with a group outside the Iowa breakfast Wednesday morning - longer than he spoke to the delegates.
While some other potential Democratic contenders here, such as Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), are preaching deficit reduction and reaching across the aisle, O'Malley rips into the GOP with gusto and tends to focus more on social and economic justice and the virtues of government programs.
"We need to ask one another and we need to ask Gov. [Mitt] Romney and we need to ask Congressman [Paul] Ryan, how much less they think would really be good for America? How much less education will make us stronger as a people? How many fewer college degrees will make us more competitive? How many hungry kids can we no longer afford to feed? I mean, what the heck's going on when we put a higher priority on ladling on tax cuts for billionaires but we're willing to let American kids starve?" O'Malley said in one typical fusillade.
'Double Kill Shot to Your Head'
In his own state, O'Malley's been willing to raise taxes in a way Democrats have by and large been scared to do nationally since Ronald Reagan's drubbing of Walter Mondale in 1984.
O'Malley says Democrats can win an argument for a more progressive vision than they've pushed in the past. That's what he's done in Maryland, where he walloped challenger Bob Ehrlich by 14 points in 2010, despite raising a host of taxes in his first term, and not just on the wealthy.
O'Malley has raised income taxes, sales taxes, alcohol taxes, car fees, even the sewer "flush" fee, while pushing for casinos across the state and a gas tax increase to boot.
That record has made him a juicy target for conservatives and for some of his in-state Democratic rivals as well who believe he's gone too far. But it's made him a hero to many on the left.
O'Malley knows tax increases are not the typical path to political success, and not what any consultant would advise someone with aspirations for higher office to push.
Indeed, one adviser told O'Malley when he was considering whether to propose a gas tax increase before this year's legislative session that it would be a "double kill shot to your head," one Maryland source said, and O'Malley pushed ahead anyway.
He acknowledges that people generally oppose taxes in polls unless the tax won't affect them.
"Of course," he said. "That's always true. That's human nature. That's where leadership comes in. Or instead, we could elect leaders that tell us we can eat cake and lose weight, that everything's a free lunch."
O'Malley said the country has been dramatically undercapitalized as a result.
"We have to as a people make investments in a shared future that we can only make together," he said.
O'Malley is quick, however, to leaven the tax hike narrative by arguing that he's cut waste and spending as well to balance the books during tough economic times.
"We have applied a balanced approach," he said. And he points to what those tax increases have helped accomplish - among them, well-funded, top-ranked schools and state college tuition that hasn't budged in four years, as well as programs expanding health care coverage and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. He says that Maryland's state and local tax burden as a percentage of income is the third-lowest in the nation.
Nationally, O'Malley speaks out against the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy but tends to indict them in general.
And he makes a Kennedy-esque appeal to pitching in to the country.
"The more we give, the more effort we put into making our nation strong, the more she gives back to us, the more she gives back to our children, the more she gives back to our grandchildren," he said. "That's what it means to be an American. ... You want to live in the greatest country in the world, or do you want to pass out the JV jerseys? I want to live in the greatest country in the world."
O'Malley's harder-line approach does have its admirers.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is a fan, inviting O'Malley to headline his steak fry this year.
"I think his approval rating is very high in Maryland because he's shown you can build a better state through his progressive policies," he said. "I've said for a long time that we as Democrats have not really been articulate enough and forceful enough in what kind of society we want to build."
Harkin ran for president in 1992 on a liberal platform but lost to Bill Clinton, who ran as a centrist. Harkin, however, said it wasn't his message but his own errors as a candidate that cost him. And he predicted O'Malley would resonate in Iowa.
"He is a good, old-fashioned liberal," former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening said approvingly. Glendening said O'Malley is the anti-Romney when it comes to taking tough positions and sticking with them, and not just on taxes. O'Malley has also gotten kudos on the left for seeking to repeal the death penalty and pushing gay marriage and a state-level DREAM Act through the Legislature.
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said O'Malley could catch fire. "I think he's doing what he needs to do to get to be a terrific national leader. ... He's a great candidate and he may hit the perfect moment," she said.
She said O'Malley would be very eloquent turning the conversation from one about taxes to one about caring for the country.
"The question is, are we a nation, are we a country, or are we only caring about me?" she said.
Glendening said O'Malley's message could resonate nationally with the party base better than some of the other contenders with more moderate records, and he's the first Marylander in memory with a real shot at the presidency.
"I think that standing for what you believe in and not waffling all over is a demonstration of personal strength that people respect," he said.
O'Malley bristled a bit at Glendening's "old-fashioned" characterization.
"I've generally used the term progressive," he said. "Certainly the politics I use are liberal in the classic sense of that word. ... I don't think that there's anything old-fashioned in the way that we manage, in our use of the Internet and performance measurement, the things that I've managed that we've received accolades about," he said.
That Old Hart Network
O'Malley has his fair share of critics both in Maryland and nationally, with some Democratic operatives privately wondering if he can compete nationally with the likes of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or any number of others.
And his week has had some hiccups, to say the least. He stepped on the Obama campaign's message when he said "no" when asked if the country is better off than it was four years ago, handing the GOP a new talking point and forcing him and the campaign to walk back and explain the comment for the next couple of days. (He calls himself the victim of a "word splice" and what he meant is that the country still hasn't fully recovered from the "Bush recession.")
And while he did secure a prime-time slot, some reviews on Twitter and in the press were harsh, although he did engage the audience in a "forward, not back" theme and got off a few choice attack lines on Romney.
If he does run, it won't be O'Malley's first rodeo. The presidential politics bug bit O'Malley early; When he was 20, he was traveling, he said, to all 99 counties in Iowa, and later New Hampshire, on the 1984 Gary Hart campaign.
That old Hart network could give O'Malley an early assist.
"The Hart people, I think more so than many other campaigns, have continued to stay in contact," he said. He said he's gotten more campaign contributions from Colorado than any other state other than Maryland as a result.
Dan Calegari, a former Hart operative close to O'Malley who has become a regular in presidential campaigns in New Hampshire, said many of O'Malley's old friends from the Hart network are prepared to work for him if he gives the word.
"If Martin O'Malley gets in the presidential race, I'd be the first guy out of the gate," Calegari said. "I hope he does it."