O'Malley takes the gloves off

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A handful of Democrats are mulling a challenge to Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSocial media mocks Trump for misspelled tweet Trump vows economic progress on Twitter Battle for union vote erupts in Ohio MORE for the party's presidential nomination, but only one is showing his teeth.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) took a shot at the likely front-runner on Sunday, appearing to accept the role of lone Democratic insurgent.

“Let’s be honest here,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “The presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families.”

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For a Democratic race largely devoid of conflict, the barb was a surprise. Potential challengers to Clinton have steered clear of publicly challenging the former secretary of State.

O’Malley’s swipe was a mild one — he didn’t mention Clinton by name, and his fire also was also directed at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R). However, Democrats see it as a clear sign that he’s moving into the next stage of his potential campaign.

“It was a calculated shot at Hillary, so I think it was a sign he’s seriously looking at this thing,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.

“It was a trial balloon. He said it to get a reaction, and he got one.”

The race for the Democratic nomination has been a stark contrast to the GOP contest, where more than a dozen potential candidates are already jockeying for position and taking shots at each other. That race has soaked up most of the media attention so far in the 2016 cycle.

O'Malley generated some headlines earlier this month for saying no nominee is “inevitable.” It was another swipe at Clinton, but the response was fleeting.

He has failed so far to attract much buzz in Democratic circles, despite repeated visits to early voting states and years building up chits with party members.

However, many Democrats say that could change if O'Malley continues to go after Clinton and fills the vacuum for a token challenger. The media attention could provide critical oxygen to his budding campaign and potentially give him the national name recognition that he currently lacks.

“A third of the Democratic electorate would like to see a challenger, and all of the media would love to cover the campaign,” said Purple Strategies CEO Steve McMahon.

“But you need a candidate willing to engage in order to make that happen. What we saw this weekend for the first time was a Democratic candidate willing to engage and throw an elbow, if not a punch, and let everybody know that he’s still a potential candidate.”

O’Malley is ramping up his media profile. He’s appeared in recent weeks on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," hit the Sunday show circuit and has been meeting with party leaders and supporters in early voting states.

There are signs the media is finally taking notice.

O’Malley has been a fixture on the influential conservative website Drudge Report. It has run a number of stories about O'Malley near the top of the page alongside a flattering photo of him wearing a sleeveless shirt and playing the guitar.

And his Sunday comments, the first of their kind from any potential Democratic contender, won him outsized coverage, with headlines about O’Malley “ripping” Clinton.

By becoming the first likely candidate to dispense with the niceties, O'Malley currently has the stage to himself. No other Democrat has shown the same eagerness to take Clinton on.

“You know the media would love a fight, but until now, there was no fight going on,” Bannon said.

Still, the stark reality is that Clinton is the unquestioned front-runner and toppling her will require much more than a few pointed barbs.

The latest CNN/ORC poll from mid-March showed Clinton in first place among the likely Democratic field at 62 percent, followed by Vice President Biden at 15 percent, Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWasserman Schultz: 'Sometimes you just have to take one for the team' Chelsea Clinton's big moment Kaine as Clinton's VP pick sells out progressive wing of party MORE (Mass.) at 10 percent and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump floats opposition to debate schedule 100 days to go in volatile race What does Bill think of Hillary's Chris Wallace interview? MORE (I-Vt.) at 3 percent. O’Malley trailed them at 1 percent support.

In the February CNN/ORC poll, O’Malley also trailed former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who took 2 percent. Six percent of Democrats checked the box for “someone else” in the latest poll, rather than for O’Malley.

“He’s in desperate search of something to consolidate those voters looking for somebody other than Clinton to make this interesting or even competitive,” McMahon said. “First, he has to prove that he’s possible, or even plausible, and then make it interesting, before he can even really be considered a contender.”

O'Malley has work to do. On Sunday, he briefly struggled to name the most pressing national security threat.

The former governor has said he’ll announce his intentions in the next few months. The question for him now is how badly he wants it and whether he’s prepared to go all in against Clinton.

While a long-shot to win the White House, O'Malley's been rumored as a possible vice presidential or Cabinet pick. An all-out war with the party’s likely nominee would slam that door shut.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), a top adviser to the Ready for Hillary PAC, shot back at O'Malley minutes after he made his Sunday remarks.

“He’s a very nice guy,” she said on “This Week.” “I was thinking he might make a nice member of a President Clinton administration, so he better watch it.”

Bannon said that might be why O’Malley’s attack was so cautious.

“Maybe he didn’t want to piss her off,” he said. “Maybe that’s why he’s been so ambivalent about whether to do this or not. Maybe he wants to and sees her as vulnerable, but on the other hand, he’d love to be her running mate.”

But McMahon said most candidates aren't running for a consolation prize.

“The danger of running against someone like Martin O’Malley, if you’re a front-runner, is always the same — you have everything to lose, and they have nothing to lose,” he said.

“I don’t think Martin O’Malley is thinking about his place in the Clinton Cabinet, as much as he’s thinking about how to be a plausible alternative.”