Martin O’Malley is just looking for a little room to breathe.

Former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Government funding bill butts up against deadline | Pentagon reports eighth military COVID-19 death | Trump, Pentagon collide over anti-diversity training push Voters split on whether Trump, Biden will win first debate: poll New Monmouth poll finds Biden with 6-point lead MORE is far and away the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, while Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPresident Trump faces Herculean task in first debate The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Trump's tax return bombshell New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments MORE (I) has taken the edge as the liberal insurgent.


O’Malley, days before the Saturday launch of his White House bid at a park overlooking Baltimore’s harbor, is performing dismally in polls despite months of travel to Iowa and New Hampshire.

He regularly pulls just 1 percent nationally, and only does slightly better in the first-in-the-nation caucus and primary states.

O’Malley isn’t well-known nationally, and could soon be competing for money, media and support with a handful of other candidates, including former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Sen. Jim Webb (Va.). 

Yet Democrats interviewed by The Hill insist O’Malley has a chance.

They say there’s still an opening for him to become the alternative to Clinton given his liberal voting record, his youthful good looks — which have helped him win attention from the conservative Drudge Report — and his standing as a Washington outsider.

“There’s a lot of hostility out there towards Washington right now,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “He could run as the anti-Washington candidate, as someone who hasn’t been tainted by Washington politics, while framing Hillary and Bernie as products of D.C. culture.”

If the front-runner implodes, some supporters say he might be best-positioned to step in.

“He’s a legitimate national candidate,” said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson. “If Hillary for some reason doesn’t become inevitable, some candidate will have a shot to step in, and he could be that person.”

But Ferson then acknowledges: “He’s not that person now.”

To get there, outsiders say O’Malley will have to distinguish himself from Clinton and Sanders.

O’Malley is already signaling he intends to play up the generational divide in the primaries. At 52, he’s 15 years younger than Clinton and 21 years younger than Sanders.

He has previously taken swipes at the dynastic elements of Clinton’s candidacy, saying the presidency is not a “crown” to be passed between two families. 

This week, O’Malley allies launched a super-PAC called Generation Forward, a not-so-subtle dig that suggests Clinton is the candidate from the past. 

The super-PAC will focus on younger voters. Spokesman Ron Boehmer told The Hill that O’Malley is a natural fit for the constituency.

“We believe the country is looking for new leadership and new ideas, and we’re supporting him because he best speaks to the ideas and issues that millennials care about,” he said.

Supporters say O’Malley has quietly built a strong liberal record as governor of Maryland that should allow him to contrast himself with Clinton and compete with Sanders.  

He opposed the war in Iraq, sponsored the same-sex marriage bill that was passed into law in Maryland, oversaw the implementation of the DREAM Act in the state, and has advocated for a higher minimum wage and lower college tuition costs.

He toured Baltimore during the unrest that broke out earlier this year, meeting with political and religious leaders to discuss economic disparity in the community, reiterated his opposition to the death penalty on the day Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced and emerged as a vocal critic of President Obama’s trade agenda.

“You go down the list, he’s been a progressive’s progressive,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.

O’Malley’s immediate challenge is preventing Sanders from cornering that market.

The Vermont independent has been impressive on the campaign trail so far, and is winning favorable news coverage.

Yet he is still seen as a sideshow by some Democrats, who believe his harsh rhetoric, harsh temperament and outside-the-mainstream positions, would be a disaster in a general election.

“He’s a socialist from Vermont and he looks like one,” said Ferson.

While some have criticized O’Malley’s generally understated media appearances as a weakness, others argue that it’s helped him fashion a personae as an easy-going everyman.

The Drudge Report has repeatedly run pictures of him shirtless on the beach or playing guitar in a sleeveless shirt that show off his biceps.

Democrats say it’s something he can build on by being more accessible than the other candidates, potentially setting up a contrast with Clinton, who has been criticized for avoiding the media.

“He has an opportunity here to be nimble in a way that Hillary can’t,” said Ferson.

Still, Democrats stress that a lot of pieces will need to fall into place for O’Malley.

“Hillary is still the overwhelming favorite and almost certain nominee,” said McMahon. “But in a field where she’s getting 52 percent support, that still leaves about 47 percent that someone could theoretically consolidate. The question is whether there’s enough room for someone like O’Malley and whether he can execute.”