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C. Fraser Smith: O’Malley’s big chance

Whatever else happens in this bizarre election year, Martin O’Malley will have clips of Anderson Cooper announcing him as a Democratic candidate for president of the United States.

With O’Malley’s standing in the polls near zero, some had wondered if he would or should be in the room at all.

But there he was on the stage in Las Vegas, in front of millions tuned in to watch CNN’s Democratic presidential debate.

Of course, that was not enough to make this more than a scrapbook moment.

Now he had to show something substantive — and to confront his opponents without being shrill or seeming out of his depth.

He had not always done well on the national stage. His speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention 2012 in Charlotte was widely judged a blown opportunity. So there was even more pressure to perform.

For the most part he handled it well.

He smiled engagingly. And the TV gods helped, giving him a spot near the front-running Hillary Clinton. Vermont’s Bernie Sanders stood to Clinton’s right. All three got major camera time.

As he had done before, O’Malley called Republican front-runner Donald Trump a “carnival barker.” Some would surely agree, and yet it sounded Trump-like.

O’Malley was gentler, but pointed, with the candidates on stage with him.

He suggested that Clinton asks for the presidency as if she deserved it simply because she’s a Clinton.

He suggested that Sanders “panders” to the gun lobby.

And he defended himself from criticism still in the air after the Freddie Gray upheaval.

He argued that his zero-tolerance policing policy while mayor of Baltimore saved lives.

If he lacked some of the necessary gravitas at the start, O’Malley emerged from the following two hours as a competitor — standing probably third among the five announced candidates.

Scoffed at and ridiculed for months in Maryland, O’Malley’s presence was saying, “Let me show you something.”

He offered thoughtful ideas about global warming, the war in Syria, criminal justice reform, gun violence and other issues in the race. While others talked about what they would do if elected, O’Malley talked about what he (and the Maryland legislature) had done during his eight years as governor.

He surely was not there to make a souvenir for his grandchildren.

In sense, though, he was. Every presidential candidate, sooner or later, talks about the future, the world we leave for our children and grandchildren.

We can succeed, he said, if “we rely on the genius of our nation … I truly believe that we are standing on the threshold of a new era of American progress.”

C.  Fraser Smith hosts Inside Maryland Politics on WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.