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C. Fraser Smith: What does O’Malley want?

If Hillary Clinton were not the presumptive nominee. …

If Sen. Bernie Sanders were not sucking up any leftover political oxygen. …

Then Martin O’Malley might compete for his party’s presidential nomination.

But, of course, Clinton is and Sanders has most of the leftover buzz O’Malley thought he could grab. Instead, the former Maryland governor must think about when to “suspend” his campaign. His boiler room advisers, no doubt, resist any precipitous withdrawal. He’s poised to introduce himself yet again to another national audience.

With other also-rans out, he will certainly get more airtime. He did well with it in Las Vegas during the second Democratic debate. He might make similar gains in round three.

At the same time, he has to worry about looking like the guy who hangs around after he’s been barred from the party. One national columnist refers to him derisively as “Martin O’Malley, whoever that is.” Reports by some networks tend to leave him out entirely when talking about the race as if he simply were not there.

So, won’t he take the hint?

Probably not right away. There’s the audience availability. Given how much mocking scorn greeted his initial candidacy, he’s already a winner of sorts. People are getting to know him.

He’s pretty good on his feet. He can handle the issues, turning them theoretically to his advantage – if there were not a presumptive winner standing next to him. Clinton supporters are probably not “persuadable.” They’re more likely “committed.”

Paris may not have helped him. He’s been firmly in favor of continuing or expanding the national policy on Syrian refugees – making it a definition of who we are. Republicans want to hit the pause button.  Other progressives – California  Sen. Diane Feinstein and New York Sen. Charles Schumer – are sounding cautionary notes as well.

In the last debate, O’Malley asked voters to remember that the Statue of Liberty defines U.S. policy more than fences.

How much the former governor might win from this stance will surely be more debatable than it was a week ago.

This is why people like me keep observing that 24 hours is a lifetime in politics. Certain applause lines can fall into the cone of silence.

He can claim success here, though. He’s standing for a fundamental principle – albeit a principle challenged in real time by real events.

Mrs. Clinton, no doubt, has a lock on her party’s foreign policy views. O’Malley’s “I’ve done it” claim on national issues was a strong one – though it has not seemed to dent the inevitability position of his chief rival.

Since the days of O’Malley’s announcement, insiders and outsiders have thought he was after the vice presidency or a Cabinet politician. The former was never in the cards. Nor was he running for No. 2.

The Cabinet might be another thing entirely. He’s always been running for president – not to position himself  for some other job. Which is not to say he would reject a profile-preserving position.

So why not accept “presumptive and “inevitable?” Why would he risk looking silly? Why commit to helping the party’s nominee?

It will come to that.

At 52, he could certainly be looking toward running again. By then pundits won’t be writing, “Martin O’Malley, whoever that is.”

C. Fraser Smith is host of Inside Maryland Politics On WYPR. His column runs Fridays in The Daily Record. His email is [email protected]