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Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley defended the 'zero tolerance' approach again Wednesday, saying the Justice Department Report report did not account for improvements, including "historic reductions in violent crime" under his watch. (Jim Cole/AP file photo)

C. Fraser Smith: Catching up with Martin O’Malley

After months on the road, Martin O’Malley stepped back into reality.

He drove his son, Jack, to school.

He picked up takeout at Atwater’s in northeast Baltimore.

I spotted him a few minutes earlier walking by himself – pensively, I thought – through the parking lot. He was wearing his leather Baltimore police jacket and jeans.

I found him inside waiting for his order. He seemed happy to see a hometown face.

Impatient, demanding or dismissive reporters lived in that other world. People at Atwater’s gave him wide berth – maybe fearful of embarrassing him with questions about his “suspended” campaign.

One fan sat next to him, a man who may have known something about serving in harm’s way and returning without applause.

As I walked, up the ex-governor of Maryland introduced him:

“This is Mr. Lake. He served in Afghanistan,” O’Malley said.

A little tougher than Iowa, the ex-candidate said with back-to-reality perspective.

“I gave it all I had,” O’Malley said before I said a word. The vet nodded his approval.

The former mayor and governor said he would talk more expansively later. He needed time to marshal a perspective he could be confident of.

He’d never been able to crack the idea that this was an exclusively a two-person race – this after O’Malley’s initial concept had him and Hillary Clinton as the only two candidates.

This was before Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders changed all that. “Feel the Bern” had the kind of movement ring that made him a to-the-barricades sensation.

Then Vice President Joe Biden had a toe- in-the water moment, pushing O’Malley even further out of camera range.

In a year of dividers, O’Malley offered himself as the uniter. Voters at town hall meetings, he said, had one compelling question: How would he get the system working again? He talked about his successful, progressive agenda in Maryland – ending the death penalty, approving gay marriage, overcoming the blows inflicted by the Great Recession.

The track-record arguments failed to generate traction.

“And we had no air cover,” he said, meaning there was insufficient money for television advertising.

The Biden tease came just after O’Malley’s first foray in Iowa and seemed to put campaign giving on hiatus until people knew what Biden was up to.

O’Malley said he had overestimated his fundraising potential – something made worse by the Sanders’ appeal.

He might have gotten out of the race earlier, he told me, but he couldn’t face himself if he didn’t stay as long as possible. The nation needs a problem-solver, he said, and he thought he was the one.

It didn’t happen, so what now? I asked.

I’ll tell you as soon as I know, he said.

‘He’s not done’

First of all, his Democratic allies in Maryland say, he should be proud of what he did.

“He will probably pull together two or three things to do, teaching, writing, maybe a little law,” one of them said.

This is an end-of the-road or retirement list. O’Malley’s prospects are much greater than this list suggests, said another.

“There’s first, place and show in this process. He didn’t win. He didn’t place, but he did show,” he said.

What did he show?

“He showed he’s resilient. He gets knocked down, but he gets up,” said this veteran observer and participant. “He’s showed he’s wanted to be president since he was five years old or at least 25. You have to have that to run for president. He’s not done.”

Some commentators thought he overstayed his welcome.

“But,” said his friend, “he didn’t embarrass himself – and he may have positioned himself if Hillary or Bernie lose. He’s one of the leading, young progressive Democrats with a strong resume which people now know about now.”

He will have to address some shortcomings.

He’s not as good a speaker as he thinks he is. He does not connect with people as well as he should.

But, said his advocate, we’ve had more than a handful of presidents who were not as good at this as Obama or Jack Kennedy. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were great leaders but people didn’t always love them.

O’Malley will likely say more about why he ran, why he kept running.

Has addressed both questions before. The answer has many aspects.

Running, being involved, staying the course – all these are imposed upon us as Americans. If we have the talent and the drive, we must step up.

His friend and adviser, Richard Cramer, urged him to think hard about his ambition so that, when he faced hard times, even defeat, he would know in his heart why he was running.

Another of his advisors, former Colorado senator Gary Hart, told him, “The only thing wrong with politics in America,” he said, “is that not enough good people try.”

O’Malley tried and may well try again.

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