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C. Fraser Smith: Can O’Malley stay shiny for 2016?

The last 18 months of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s life might seem like a dream.

With few exceptions, life has unfolded along lines that might have been scripted — by O’Malley.

The Maryland governor became a media star.

He appeared on one Sunday morning news show after another, honing his on-camera skills, building named recognition outside of the state and earning points as a Democratic Party stalwart.

He spoke at the party’s presidential nominating convention in Charlotte, N.C. (OK, it wasn’t his best effort, but they spelled his name right.)

Major legislative issues were approved by the General Assembly in 2012 and then ratified at the polls last November by voters.

He spoke at U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin’s candidate-anointing barbecue in Iowa.

In Annapolis, he’s now racking up another year of big initiatives successfully pushed to enactment: an end to the death penalty, the outlines of a revenue-raising package for roads and bridges, stricter gun-control laws, a wind farm off the Maryland coast and, no doubt, other measures of importance.

And there is something possibly even more important: He’s presided over a state that seems to get its work done without the incessant crippling disruption of Washington.

Not high ratings

So far, all of this has not resulted in high job approval ratings, according to recent polls. People could be getting a little tired of him after a decade of high-profile service. (In the military, young officer trainees are instructed to keep their distance from the troops because, it is said, familiarity breeds contempt.) Or it may be the governor’s determination to find money for roads and bridges and transit — costly projects that may require a tax increase of some kind.

But these soundings in Maryland matter much less now. He’s compiling a record to take on the road. And even if a Maryland record looks a little bluer than the nation as a whole is ready for, Job One will be convincing Democratic primary voters that he’s the kind of man they want.

For the run he’s been having in Maryland, O’Malley owes much to Senate President Mike Miller, who could have blocked him at many turns but chose not to. O’Malley’s reluctant support for Miller’s pet issue — gambling — lies somewhere near the heart of it all.

This is the sort of trade a candidate thinks he has to make along the way. O’Malley thought gambling revenue was the wrong way to raise money for education. That money should come from the people, a demonstration of their commitment to educating their children. It shouldn’t be dependent on the take from citizens who lose their money in games they can’t win. But, of course, that train has left the station.

O’Malley got on board with Miller. In return, it seems, Miller has allowed the death-penalty issue to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote (instead of letting it die in committee as in the past). He has allowed gun-control measures to move without his energetic support. In general, he has cleared the decks for the governor’s package.

Beyond his reach

Republicans, no doubt, would see O’Malley’s record as replete with damaging ventures into the realm of revenue raising (gasoline-related initiatives) or costly experiments (wind energy). The gun bills as well have been dismissed as overreaching by the GOP.

Much of the O’Malley quest — if quest it is — is out of his power to invent. He cannot manage the 2016 field. He can’t keep the very popular former Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of the race. And this is only a hint of the things beyond his control.

So, has he been shamelessly burnishing his image in anticipation of a presidential run? Or is he simply getting his job done as governor? Probably depends on your point of view.

Whatever the answer, will this record help him win the Democratic Party nomination for president in 2016?

Who knows? A mere 24 hours, they say, is a lifetime in politics. The year 2016 is countless lifetimes away.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org

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