Sanders threatens to crowd out O’Malley

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Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersAide: Trump 'happy' to debate Sanders Sanders camp: Discussions underway for Trump debate The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (I-Vt.) is moving fast to corner the market for a firebrand liberal alternative to Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton fundraises on news that Trump clinched nomination Dem senator: DNC head ‘has to make a decision’ on her own future Aide: Trump 'happy' to debate Sanders MORE in 2016 — complicating life for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

O’Malley would like to position himself to the left of Clinton and capitalize on a perceived unease about the former secretary of State among progressives.

His problem is that Sanders is already on the battlefield and advancing.

“Sanders has energy and excitement,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “O’Malley is late to the dance.”

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Very few observers believe Sanders could truly endanger Clinton’s pursuit of the Democratic nomination. He’s not a member of the Democratic Party and is relatively unknown compared to Clinton. A Fox News poll earlier this month showed the former first lady with the support of 63 percent of voters, compared to 6 percent for Sanders.

Yet Sanders has a built-in constituency and a plainspoken style that is both unabashedly left-wing and authentic. He knows how to get attention on the campaign trail, and his message appeals to grassroots progressives and young liberals.

While he’s far behind Clinton, polls show him outdistancing O’Malley, who is not expected to formally declare his candidacy until the end of this month. The Maryland Democrat registered 0 percent in the Fox poll, and a separate survey from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling in early May found Clinton with 63 percent support, Sanders with 13 percent and O’Malley with 2 percent.

Sanders make no bones about his distaste for the personality-driven nature of modern campaigning. He boasts he has never run a negative ad throughout his career and appears at ease rolling out the kinds of policies he has espoused for years. 

Most recently, he received some attention for proposing that government step in to greatly reduce the costs of college education. 

A policy-driven question-and-answer session he participated in on social media website Reddit on Tuesday resulted in the Vox headline “11 moments from Bernie Sanders’s Reddit Q&A that show why he’s a progressive hero.” Among them were his outright opposition to the Patriot Act, his advocacy of publicly funded election campaigns and his assertion that “I believe a number of Republicans want to see ... perpetual warfare in the quagmire of the Middle East.”

Even Democratic insiders skeptical of the Vermont senator acknowledge he has gotten off to a solid start in his campaign.

“I think with this beginning, he seems to be engendering support and good reviews from some of the people on the left of the Democratic Party,” said strategist Jamal Simmons. “We’ll see how it progresses.”

In a general election, some of Sanders’s views might doom him. But the forcefulness and candor with which he puts them forward inspires enthusiasm from the most liberal Democrats in states hosting early primary contests.

A Quinnipiac poll in Iowa gave Sanders 15 percent support to O’Malley’s 3 percent.

In New Hampshire, where Sanders possibly gains from his base in an adjacent state, he receives 18 percent backing while O’Malley is again stranded at 3 percent, according to a Bloomberg/Saint Anselm poll earlier this month.

Clinton, of course, is way out ahead of both men. They’re also edged out in most polls by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's 12:30 Report Clinton urged to go liberal with vice presidential pick The Trail 2016: Hell breaks loose MORE (D-Mass.), despite the fact that it seems increasingly implausible the liberal darling will run.

But Sanders’s lead over O’Malley grants him several advantages, including an increased likelihood that more and more support will accrue to him from Democratic dissenters who are unimpressed with Clinton. 

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and a columnist for The Hill, insists the size of that anti-Clinton constituency can be easily exaggerated. But he acknowledges that one of her rivals is virtually assured of getting at least one moment in the sun.

“Is there going to be some day, or some primary, where the press says, ‘Oh my God, she is going to be in trouble?’ Yes. Because there always is,” he said. “But at the end of the day, there just aren’t that many people in the Democratic Party who want someone other than Hillary Clinton. The overwhelming majority of Democrats do want Hillary Clinton.”

O’Malley supporters believe this could all change once he actually gets into the race, as he is widely expected to do in Baltimore on May 30. They argue he has clear advantages, including his experience as a governor, a personal style that is both more telegenic and might have broader appeal than Sanders’s, and a capacity to connect with blue-collar voters.

This view finds some support from unaligned strategists, such as Simmons.

“I think Bernie Sanders’s audience is more academic, maybe a little bit more part of the labor elite or the academic elite, or the people of a ‘netroots’ perspective,” he said. “Martin O’Malley is a rock-band-playing former mayor of a blue-collar city [Baltimore], who can have a beer and talk about complicated policy issues.”

Even so, Simmons added, O’Malley “could well be the mainstream liberal alternative to Secretary Clinton if people are in the market for that. It’s just that I don’t really know if there is a market for that.”

Sheinkopf is even blunter.

“Sanders’s positions are very much his own. O’Malley is a governor who is not generating any excitement.”

In words that now seem prescient, Sanders warned opponents of his strengths during an interview with ABC’s “This Week” shortly after he announced his candidacy.

Looking host George Stephanopoulos in the eye, he said: “Don’t underestimate me.”