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For Martin O'Malley, Most To Prove, Nothing To Lose

Does he finally break through to the general public?

You know, I like Martin O'Malley. He did a lot of good, progressive policy as governor of Maryland. But when I think of him, I remember what Molly Ivins said about Michael Dukakis: "This man has got no Elvis." And Molly always said you couldn't become president without it.

I've heard from people who worked for/with O'Malley and they insist no, he really, really does. But the thing about Elvis, I would think, is that it would be apparent from the start and I'm not seeing it. I guess this is the night the rest of America gets to decide. Expect to see some breakout moves, because at this point, he needs to keep his campaign alive:

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 movedfrom 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.”

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