For Martin O’Malley, Tuesday night’s presidential debate may be his best chance to shake up a Democratic primary that has largely passed him by.
The former two-term Maryland governor entered the race in May hoping to give primary voters an alternative to Hillary Clinton. But that mantle has been taken up by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described Democratic Socialist who many polls show beating the former secretary of State in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
O’Malley has failed to gain any traction in the polls, consistently coming in at about 3 percent in Iowa. While he will share the stage in Las Vegas with two other Democratic contenders, former U.S. senator Jim Webb (VA) and former Rhode Island governor and U.S. senator Lincoln Chafee, O’Malley likely will try to force himself more into conversations with Clinton and Sanders in a bid to gain the kind of national exposure his candidacy has thus far lacked.
Unlike Sanders, who has refrained from attacking Clinton’s long-track until recently, O’Malley has not shied away from critiquing her on topics including (but not limited to), trade, Social Security, college tuition, immigration, the environment and jobs.
This summer, he was one of the first Democrats to say Clinton’s use of a private email server while acting as the nation’s top diplomat was a “legitimate” campaign issue and has said she should be pressed on the topic during the two-hour debate.
Sanders hasn’t been spared, either. O’Malley touts himself as a “lifelong Democrat,” a not-so-subtle dig at the Vermont lawmaker who is an Independent but caucuses with Senate Democrats.
O’Malley has also lashed out at Democratic National Committee for scheduling only six primary debates, accusing the leaders of his own party of “facilitating a coronation” for Clinton, who once seemed like the inevitable nominee.
But an overly aggressive strategy could backfire on O’Malley.
A former Baltimore mayor, the techniques he instituted in that city’s police department came under fire earlier this year following the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, who was in police custody.
David Axelrod, the former top political adviser to President Obama, said, “[The] inaugural debate is a critical and maybe fleeting chance for O'Malley to insinuate his way into the race. Facing off with Sanders on guns is one vehicle.”
He suggested O’Malley could try to take the high road and cast himself as a generational shift from the 74-year-old Sanders and the 67-year-old Clinton.
“I can see the 52-year-old O'Malley pressing the case that the party needs fresh, forward-looking leadership,” according to Axelrod.
O’Malley is unlikely to win the nomination, but he can lose the debate for Clinton or Sanders. Tune in tonight to watch the game.