By David M. Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette
OGDEN, Iowa -- Martin O'Malley is trying to get elected president one living room at a time.
Last Saturday afternoon's living room was in this town of 2,044 people in Iowa's Boone County, a fertile heaven of soybeans and corn. It belongs to Mike O'Brien, a former state representative, and his wife, Ronna, who spent the afternoon refilling plastic decanters of Country Time Lemonade. Pam Nystrom brought over some fudge brownies and a cinnamon coffee cake. It was an old-fashioned event, and not only because there was a "Home, Sweet Home" plaque nailed to the hall wall.
It is in settings like this, an hour's drive northwest of Des Moines, that O'Malley, the former Democratic governor of Maryland, hopes to build a presidential campaign. With a small campaign budget and his support at 4 percent in this month's Marist/NBC News poll, he has little choice. He has a bare-bones staff and a steep uphill battle against former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who leads the pack with 38 percent. His targets of opportunity are Iowans such as Penny Vossler, who stood against the kitchen cabinets in the O'Briens' home, knitting a multicolored dishcloth. She's undecided.
"This is how you do it in Iowa," says O'Malley. "History's full of candidates going county to county to county." The last one to prevail with this strategy was former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who won the 2012 caucuses here by 34 votes over former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the eventual Republican nominee.
O'Malley, 52, knows this firsthand. As a Catholic University student, he worked the southeast corner of Iowa for Sen. Gary Hart, an insurgent who stunned the political world by finishing second here in 1984, and then O'Malley moved with Hart's new-model army to New Hampshire, where the Coloradan forged an upset victory over former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.
Now O'Malley is making his appeal -- to assist the middle class, bolster Social Security and to end the oppression of huge student debt -- on his own behalf.
In 1984, he called Democrats individually on the telephone, day after day. This time there were four dozen Democrats in the O'Briens' home, and he lingered to answer questions and pose for cellphone pictures. His goal was to get 12 converts to sign a postcard pledge to go to a caucus for him Feb. 1. He fell 10 short, but then bravely moved on over the weekend to Tipton (population 3,199), Anamosa (pop. 5,545) and Maquoketa (pop. 6,062)
"Santorum showed it was still possible to win with a living-room strategy," said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist and the premier expert on the Iowa caucuses. "These contests are still fundamentally a ground game, but people like O'Malley are discovering that this time the air game may be a bigger piece than it has been."
O'Malley served as mayor of Baltimore and used that experience plus his two terms as governor as the basis of his living-room appeal, emphasizing that he had more executive experience than any of his rivals. "If there is a common thread in my experience," he said, "it is a thread of human dignity and a belief in the common good."
O'Malley has detractors at home, some of whom describe him as a government careerist, more cautious than his image and less innovative than he suggests outside Maryland. Some say that O'Malley, who imposed a zero-tolerance policing policy in Baltimore, deserves a portion of the blame for the city's riots. He left the mayor's office eight years ago and hurried home from Europe this spring when the violence broke out, but the upheaval takes some of the sparkle off his boasts about the Baltimore renaissance.
Even so, O'Malley remains an admixture of ambition and optimism. "The tough odds," he told a voter here who questioned his prospects, "are a way a silent God tells us it is a fight worth having." You don't hear rhetoric like that every day in the Democratic Party.
In a debate, O'Malley -- polished, personable, prepared -- won't seem as familiar as Clinton nor as alien as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has much the same platform but seven times the support.
There's never been an Iowa caucus like this one, with one candidate holding such a dominant position. But as strong as Clinton is -- she has the most coveted endorsements here, including that of former Sen. Tom Harkin -- no one believes she is invulnerable, and if nothing else O'Malley is positioning himself to be available should she stumble.
"Hillary Clinton has slipped here because she has not been forthright in answering questions here," said Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. "It's all been very stage-managed, with selected people in the audience. Iowans can see through that."
The irony is that the O'Malley campaign has so many strains of the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign. He speaks of a "covenant" -- a favorite Bill Clinton word -- and talks about the need to return to a time when people who "work hard and play by the rules" -- another phrase ripped from the Clinton playbook -- could advance and prosper. Like former President Clinton, O'Malley was a darling of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
At the same time, however, the very nature of the O'Malley effort -- his campaign a rudimentary handcart trip across Iowa, in sharp and humbling contrast with the shiny Conestoga wagon of the Hillary Clinton campaign -- is a shout across the prairies.
"Iowans expect to see their governor, senators and presidential candidates up close, and they expect people to be open and forthright and submit to their questions," said Branstad, who, having conducted six successful campaigns for governor, is steeped in the Iowa way. "If you can handle tough questions and even hostile questions, you gain respect, and that's why I tell candidates to come here early and often and travel the state."
That's what O'Malley is doing, and he's seeking to make a virtue out of necessity. "No presidential candidate worth their salt," he says, "should get to the White House without answering questions in every living room in Iowa." Ronna and Mike O'Brien's living room is a start.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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