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Far down in polls, Martin O'Malley says, 'What, me worry?'

Far down in polls, Martin O'Malley says, 'What, me worry?'
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has run a by-the-books presidential campaign. But so far, the Democratic hopeful has won only meager support. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

If there's a by-the-book way to run for president, Martin O'Malley seems to have followed it to the letter.

The liberal Democrat and former Maryland governor has been a frequent visitor to Iowa and New Hampshire, which will cast the first votes of the 2016 campaign. He's a polished performer on the political chat-show circuit. He's issued a sheaf of painstakingly detailed policy briefs, winning applause from the party's left-leaning interest groups.

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And yet for all of that, O'Malley is mired at a near-subterranean level in opinion polls, with support in the 1% to 3% range that, for all intents, amounts to little more than a rounding error.

Worse, the scant bit of attention paid to any Democratic presidential hopeful not named Hillary Rodham Clinton has been devoted to Bernie Sanders, Vermont's rumpled senator and a conduit for the restiveness pulsing among a legion of progressive activists.

O'Malley insists it's not the least bit concerning.

"It would be if I hadn't been to this rodeo before," he said Thursday during a two-day fund-raising swing through California. "I've seen candidates of substance and experience commit themselves to the long-haul marathon and campaign the way you have to campaign to succeed in the Iowa caucuses."

He was referring to Gary Hart, the Democrat who played the role of handsome-face-of-a-new-generation back in 1984, laboring for months as an asterisk in polls until he placed an unexpectedly strong second in Iowa. That catapulted him into a fierce national race against the overwhelming establishment front-runner, Walter F. Mondale. O'Malley, 52, was a young foot soldier in Hart's Iowa campaign.

"So having seen that before, it's a little easier for me to have the faith to walk across these months," a conspicuously jet-lagged O'Malley said as he gripped a paper cup from Starbucks.

His strategy goes back once more to the familiar campaign playbook, specifically the pages labeled "long-shot/underdog."

O'Malley is focused on winning Iowa and New Hampshire voters one by one, at diners and small dinners, in living rooms and church basements.

He assails Democratic leaders for allegedly stacking the nominating process in Clinton's favor, throwing out words like "coronation" that play to resentment over the front-runner's perceived sense of entitlement. He insists, with increasing asperity, that the half-dozen debates sanctioned by the national party aren't enough, joining Sanders in demanding more.

He accuses Clinton — cordially, for the most part — of stinting on policy and ducking controversial issues, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. O'Malley opposes both.

In fact, the former governor has issued a veritable blizzard of white papers: on immigration — he would extend citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants in political and administrative limbo; financial reform — he would cap the size of the nation's biggest banks; criminal justice — he would phase out the for-profit prison industry; and the environment — he calls for a 100% clean-energy economy by 2055.

The difference from other Democrats, O'Malley says repeatedly, is his unmatched executive experience as Baltimore mayor, from December 1999 to January 2007, followed by eight years as Maryland governor.

"Not only do I make progressive promises, but I'm the only candidate in our field who's actually accomplished progressive things, progressive results," he told reporters after participating in a high-minded panel discussion on tech and civic engagement.

As governor, he showed a wonky passion for statistics-driven policy — using number-crunching formulas to fight crime, tame Maryland's bureaucracy and clean up Chesapeake Bay — and compiled a record of unswerving liberal activism: raising taxes on the state's wealthiest residents, banishing the death penalty, toughening gun laws, raising the minimum wage and approving same-sex marriage.

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O'Malley's eager to discuss all of that and more on a debate stage, face to face with Clinton, at the first party-sanctioned forum Oct. 13 in Las Vegas.

"Let's hope they don't put it in an undisclosed hangar in Area 51," he said, dryly.

Follow @markzbarabak for national and California politics

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