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Can Martin O'Malley be Hillary Clinton's progressive challenger in Iowa?

If Martin O'Malley enjoys any level of success in the 2016 presidential race, it won't be because he walked in with instant name recognition and a built-in reservoir of support.

The former Maryland governor, fresh out of office in 2014, tends to hover around the one percent mark in polls of the emerging Democratic field of candidates. It's hard to say why he is still such an unknown commodity among the public: O'Malley, one of the most liberal governors in the country, chaired the Democratic Governors' Association for two years, makes rounds on the Sunday shows, has spent months crisscrossing the country to help other Democrats get elected, and was even, to some extent, the inspiration for a character in HBO's "The Wire."

But the auditions for alternatives to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary are still wide open, and O'Malley is determined to get a hearing. He's out reminding Democrats that they have an unabashedly liberal choice -- with the record to back it up.

The Maryland story

Democratic politics run in O'Malley's blood -- his parents met while working on a newsletter for young Democrats. His own start in the business came in 1982, as an aide in Gary Hart's presidential campaign. O'Malley even took a semester off from Catholic University in 1983 to work for the campaign in Iowa.

He worked for Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland while he was still in law school and then briefly became a state's attorney for the city of Baltimore. After a failed bid for state senate in 1990, O'Malley was elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1991.

In 1999, O'Malley was elected mayor of Baltimore - the only white candidate in a majority-black city. In that position, he began to develop his own political identity, embracing the wonky ways of a technocrat to tackle the city's problems. He implemented a program called CitiState to help gather and analyze data, leading to better government performance and a sharp reduction in violent crime.

"I brought forward a new way of governing and a new way of getting things done," he tells voters about his tenure as Baltimore mayor. "I started setting goals with deadlines. Instead of simply counting inputs, my team started measuring outputs and managing for results."

O'Malley used the same approach on the state level when he was elected governor of Maryland in 2006, ousting Bob Ehrlich, the incumbent Republican governor (the Clintons endorsed him that year; he returned the favor by endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2008).

O'Malley had a strong enough first term that he handily dispatched Ehrlich's attempt at a rematch in 2010, despite the Republican wave that netted the party five GOP gubernatorial seats across the country that year. It was during his second term that O'Malley stacked up a list of progressive accomplishments that would make any liberal Democrat jealous: ending the death penalty in Maryland, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, implementing stricter gun control laws, legalizing gay marriage and giving in-state tuition to the children of immigrants in the U.S. illegally. The latter two policies survived a statewide referendum in 2012.

But his legacy could prove fragile. O'Malley's lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, lost his 2014 gubernatorial bid to Republican Larry Hogan. And O'Malley's record wasn't perfect: among the stumbles during O'Malley's second term was a botched rollout of the state's healthcare exchange, not unlike the national rollout. Maryland officials reportedly ignored more than a year of warnings about problems with the development of the website, leading to massive crashes the day it opened (just four people were able to sign up in the first 24 hours).

Martin O'Malley on the issues

Foreign policy: While it's not surprising that a governor would be more fluent in domestic policy than foreign policy, O'Malley is unusually reticent on almost everything outside U.S. borders. During a 2013 trip to the Middle East while he was governor, O'Malley told a group of reporters he had gathered, "I'm sure all of you will ask me foreign policy questions...I respect your right to ask them, and I hope you'll respect my right to shy away from answering them." He called the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons - a major issue that summer - "one of the great challenges," and deferred to the president on the wisdom of engaging in a military operation to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, according to the New York Times.

Nearly two years later, he remains cautious about weighing in on foreign policy. In February, when the White House sent Congress a request for authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), O'Malley wrote on Facebook, "The new AUMF should address ISIS specifically, and mitigate any unintended consequences by including clear language on the use of ground troops and the length and terms of engagement."

Speaking to Salon last month, O'Malley answered a question about how he would have dealt with conflicts in Libya and Syria. He gave a broad answer: "I think our most effective foreign policy is a foreign policy of constant engagement around the world, and deploying our considerable diplomatic power, and our economic power, in accordance with our principles."

Pressed further on Libya and Syria, he replied, "I don't know. I wasn't there at the time, and I didn't really bone up on the nuances of that to be able to discuss it with you today."

He did promise that in the next several months he would give a number of policy speeches, "almost certainly on national security and foreign policy."

Immigration: O'Malley agrees with many of the Obama administration policies, but there is some dissension on immigration, specifically on the unaccompanied minors from Central America flooding across the southern border of the U.S. When the White House promised that many children would be sent back to their home countries, O'Malley told reporters that would send them "back to certain death." That prompted what was reported as a frustrated call from a top Obama aide, plus a potential leak that O'Malley had rejected a Maryland site to house some of the children awaiting due process (O'Malley argued that the proposed site was in an area not welcome to immigrants).

He's been bringing that instance up on the stump these days. "When refugee children arrive on our doorstop fleeing starvation and death gangs, we don't turn them away - we act like the generous, compassionate people we have always been," O'Malley told a group of Iowa Democrats last week.

Latino advocates are sure to note O'Malley's support for in-state tuition rates for immigrants in the state illegally, a law that later survived a statewide referendum. He also signed a law that expands the ability of immigrants living in Maryland illegally to get drivers licenses.

Economic policy: So far, O'Malley has made the economy central to his pitch. He has said the "biggest challenge" facing the country is making the economy work, and his Facebook page is peppered with criticism of Wall Street, support for equal pay and notes about the importance of fair overtime pay.

In speeches and op-eds, he warns about the dangers of letting "another Wall Street meltdown to rain down on hard-working families." He wants the largest banking institutions broken up and says the U.S. should reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, which in 1933 separated commercial and investment banking. Those rules were later repealed during the Clinton administration. There needs to be more accountability for both CEOs and banks themselves, O'Malley says.

It's a populist message that could attract supporters of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has said she will not run for president in 2016.

During his time as governor Maryland, O'Malley raised the sales, gas and income taxes in part to help balance the budget. Hogan, Maryland's new Republican governor, relentlessly hammered Brown, O'Malley's lieutenant governor and preferred successor in the statehouse, over the tax increases.

Social issues: O'Malley is likely to bring up his support for same-sex marriage when he talks to voters. "The dignity of every person tells us that the right to marry is not a state right, it is a human right," he said at a Democratic event in Polk County last week. It's not just a statement about his own position on the issue; it was a subtle jab at potential rivals that include Clinton, who in the past have said they supported same-sex marriage but that it should remain a state issue. Clinton has modified her stance, however, effective this week. Her campaign spokesperson, Adrienne Elrod, told Buzzfeed Wednesday, "Hillary Clinton supports marriage equality and hopes the Supreme Court will come down on the side of same-sex couples being guaranteed that constitutional right."

On abortion, O'Malley officially bills himself as pro-choice and has received an award from Planned Parenthood of Maryland, and he has a 100 percent rating from the Maryland chapter of NARAL, an organization that advocates for abortion rights. But unlike same-sex marriage, it's not an issue he's likely to bring up.

In a 2010 interview with the Maryland Catholic Conference, he said, "I believe that it is an issue that is best left to the individual conscience of women...and in the meantime, as a society, we should do those things that we can to advance the dignity of every human life."

Can he pull off a Santorum surprise?

For inspiration, O'Malley may want to look to his neighbor from the north, former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.

Santorum, who won the 2012 Iowa caucuses, didn't even register in Republican polls in the year-long run-up. His support remained stubbornly in the single digits until two weeks before voters showed up to caucus. No poll had put him over 20 percent, and he ended up with about 25 percent.

"If you don't have high name identification its really hard to score well in any of these early polls, just ask Rick Santorum," Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa Democratic strategist, told CBS News. And, he added, John Edwards also ranked low before his second-place finish in the 2008 caucuses. "You can get a relatively small activists enthused, but it's really hard to move poll numbers."

O'Malley recently ranked sixth (dead last) in a Des Moines Register poll of likely Democratic caucus goers. Just one percent said he was their first choice. He can take some comfort, however, from the fact that in this early stage, 78 percent said they didn't know enough about him to form an opinion. Nationally, CBS News' most recent poll shows him with similar numbers - three percent would consider voting for him, while 80 percent still don't feel they know enough about him.

For the time being, O'Malley seems likely to work hard to change that, showing up for crowds big and small.

But the small crowds have been growing. Over 150 people packed a bar near Des Moines, to meet O'Malley last Thursday, and a few hundred more showed up for his address at the Polk County Democrats dinner the following night. "Just these last couple visits I've talked to a bunch of people that have seen him and they like him," Link said.

He's promoting his work in the governor's mansion recovering from the recession and boosting Maryland schools and businesses. And the heavy focus on issues of fairness and Wall Street reform will resonate with Iowa's traditionally populist Democratic Party. Just as Webb runs to Clinton's left on foreign policy issues, O'Malley is poised to do the same with economic issues.

What he doesn't have, however, is a field of candidates as unsettled as the one Santorum faced in 2012.

"The thing that helped Rick Santorum immensely was that all the other people who were sort of competing in the Republican side for that social conservative spot rose up and fell away," Hagle said. "There aren't even any second tier candidates, only one first tier candidate, Clinton...what O'Malley really has to do is hope that there's a serious stumble on the part of Hillary Clinton."

And given Clinton's dominance of the Democratic field (that Des Moines Register poll showed Clinton had an 84 percent favorability rating and was the first choice of 56 percent of likely caucus goers), O'Malley is going to have to figure out whether that Santorum strategy will be enough to move the numbers from her column to his.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.