Democratic Underdog Martin O'Malley Plans to Show His Bite at Debate

PHOTO: Martin OMalley, former governor of Maryland, participates in the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Oct. 13, 2015. Josh Haner/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Martin O'Malley, former governor of Maryland, participates in the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Oct. 13, 2015.

No rest for the trailing. Unlike his primary opponents, Martin O’Malley did not take a few days off prior to the second Democratic debate in Iowa. The former Maryland Governor spent Thursday in Texas, lunching with undocumented immigrants and doing what he’s done a lot of lately, hitting Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders who are trouncing him in the polls.

“Secretary Clinton, in front of some audiences, will boast about how she’s voted for big fences and walls on the border...and then in another context she’ll talk about comprehensive immigration reform and compassion," he told reporters after speaking at the University of Texas at Austin. "If you want us to be a more compassionate nation, then you need to speak to the goodness within us, and not the sort of cynical game where you say one thing to one crowd."

Drawing contrasts with and criticizing his opponents is nothing new for O’Malley. The last few weeks, he and his campaign have been ratcheting up aggressive rhetoric that will likely come center stage at the debate tonight. During his remarks in Austin, in fact, O’Malley said he was “confident” that the differences between himself and his Democratic rivals would “play out in this next debate.”

Despite his dashing looks and executive experience, O'Malley has struggled to gain traction so far in the race. According to the latest CBS/New York Times polls this week, he has the support of 5 percent of Democratic voters nationwide, compared to Sanders at 33 percent and Clinton at 52 percent. With the first primary votes to be cast in fewer than 100 days, O’Malley is swinging for the fences.

Asked about the attack strategy, O’Malley’s national press secretary Haley Morris said, “I think Governor O’Malley is making an aggressive case for himself and his record of actions, not words. He’s emphasizing the real choices we have -- on issues like gun safety, immigration reform, Wall Street, Social Security etc. Democrats want a nominee who will be best to build on President Obama’s legacy.”

O’Malley’s critique of his opponents has not been isolated to one issue or incident. At an immigration forum in Las Vegas last Sunday, O’Malley took the opportunity to hit both of his primary challengers on specific policies. He accused Clinton of pressuring the state of New York to call off a 2007 bill to grant licenses to new immigrants because of politics, and he derided Sanders for comments he had previously made about immigrant labor depressing wages in the country.

“We are not going to solve this problem with poll-tested triangulation and half-truths,” O’Malley said. “To solve this problem, we need new leadership.”

The week prior, he wrote in an op-ed that Clinton had “failed logic” when it came to the death penalty.

At a forum hosted by MSNBC in South Carolina a week ago, O’Malley said the fact that Clinton took so long to oppose the Keystone pipeline was important. “Secretary Clinton got there just last week, I was against it a year ago…leadership isn’t about following the polls.” At the same forum, O’Malley accused Sanders of being disloyal to President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

The Sanders campaign seemed unfazed. “Governor O’Malley is in kind of a difficult position and I understand why he has to lash out at people,” Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in response.

Weaver told ABC News that if he were O’Malley’s campaign manager he would advise him to go after Clinton hard. Weaver added that he thought so far O’Malley had been attacking Clinton “weakly,” spelling out: “w-e-a-k-l-y.”

O’Malley’s central argument against Clinton is that she lacks political courage. “We need a president who is not on the side of Wall Street like Hillary Clinton…who is willing to have the backbone to not only stand up to the NRA on gun safety but to stand up to the big banks on Wall Street,” he said in South Carolina.

Meanwhile, he blasts Sanders for spending the majority of his political career as an independent. While filing for the New Hampshire primary earlier this month, O’Malley snickered at questions about Sanders, the longest-serving Independent in Congress. Asked by reporters in a crowd whether Sanders would have any trouble filing for the nation’s first primary, O’Malley responded: “I don’t know. I know that I won’t. I spelled ‘Democrat' in capital letters on my form.”

With lines like these, O’Malley is not simply highlighting differences in opinion between himself and his opponents. O’Malley is questioning whether they fundamentally have the fortitude of character or political experience to do the job.