So, what’s the deal with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D)? Are his presidential ambitions for real?

The facts guide us to two possible answers.

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Buoyed by his high-profile service as head of the Democratic Governors Association, the governor clearly seems to be leveraging whatever national standing he has in the service of his presidential ambitions.

He continues to make stops across the country, visiting politically-important states. He made at least four recent swings through both New Hampshire and Iowa as well as numerous trips to California, where he has attended four meet and greets in Los Angeles with wealthy potential donors connected to the entertainment industry.

The governor has used his own PAC to send resources to support Democratic candidates struggling in a strong GOP year, building a network of friends, and chits, all across the country.

Meanwhile, other potential candidates with whom O’Malley might compete for the same slice of the Democratic electorate have yet to materialize. Progressive favorite Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Tech: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court fight | Warren backs bid to block AT&T, Time Warner merger | NC county refuses to pay ransom to hackers Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (D-Mass.) says she’s not running, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) – once seen as a natural O’Malley rival – is having his own problems back home.

On the other hand, history has demonstrated that two-term Maryland governors depart with high disapproval ratings and exhausted political options. With the exception of Spiro Agnew and William Donald Schaefer, former governors are typically never heard from again.

A recent Gonzales poll in Maryland pegged O’Malley’s gubernatorial approval rating at 41 percent – the lowest of his governorship. And, another poll found that 65 percent of Marylanders prefer he not run for president.

Numbers like these, as well as the defeat of his hand-picked successor should that occur, may undercut O’Malley’s ability to make a credible case for national leadership.

And, of course, every indication is that, if she wants it, the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination belongs to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE. A recent CNN poll showed Mrs. Clinton leading O’Malley 53 percent to 2 percent.

So where does this leave O’Malley?

If one accepts the premise that Hillary Clinton will run for president, then O’Malley’s recent national outreach efforts make sense not as presidential campaigning, but vice presidential positioning.

As Clinton’s running mate, the governor brings youth, energy, a telegenic family, and executive experience. He is also a sharp-elbowed partisan who could fulfill the kind of political hatchet man role for which a vice presidential nominee is typically deployed, allowing Clinton to stay above the fray.

Most importantly, by picking O’Malley as her running mate, Clinton inoculates herself from her single biggest primary concern: The emergence of another Obama-like challenge from the left.

O’Malley competing against Clinton in the primaries is part of that inoculation process, too.

O’Malley has long been an acolyte of Bill and Hillary Clinton. The former president supported and campaigned for O’Malley during both his gubernatorial campaigns, and O’Malley returned the favor by being among the first to endorse, and the last to abandon, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid.

This loyalty was evident recently when it was reported in Politico: “(I)n meetings with major donors, (O’Malley has) been reluctant to contrast himself with Clinton, and has even been offering himself as a fallback choice.” 

If Martin O’Malley challenges Hillary Clinton, he will be a friendly opponent.

He will influence the narrative by giving her the opportunity to win the nomination in a seemingly competitive contest, as opposed to receiving it by acclamation. 

He will attract support from progressive voters skeptical of Clinton – support that might otherwise go to other candidates.

And, should Hillary Clinton choose him as her running mate, he will have played an important role in bringing those progressive voters back into the fold.

So are O’Malley’s national ambitions real? Yes, I think so.

But it is up to Hillary Clinton to decide in which direction – if any – they will go.

A native Marylander, Cross is a former Capitol Hill press secretary and communications director, Republican National Committee senior writer, and Maryland gubernatorial speechwriter who can be reached at rcrossiii@comcast.net.