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O’Malley, entering 2016 race, prepares to challenge Clinton from the left

Former Maryland governor positions himself as a plausible progressive alternative for the 2016 Democratic nomination

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on Saturday became the latest presidential aspirant to officially enter the 2016 race, with an announcement at Federal Hill Park in Baltimore, the city where he served two terms as mayor.

O’Malley is widely viewed as a long shot to defeat the formidable operation of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for the nomination. Nonetheless, the former two-term governor has spent the last months positioning himself as a plausible progressive alternative to the former secretary of state. He has created an image that is of less of a firebrand than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who kicked off his campaign in his home state earlier this week, and more interested in the White House than Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. who has repeatedly shaken off a draft effort by grassroots activists.

Along with Sanders from within the race and Warren exerting her considerable influence in Democratic politics from her perch in the Senate, O’Malley adds to the challenge from Clinton’s left flank, a wing of the Democratic party that has been increasingly energized and vocal in demands for a more progressive candidate championing issues like income inequality.  

Roger Hickey, a co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy organization, welcomed more candidates into the fray in order to pressure Clinton to elaborate on her policy positions and her vision for the country.

“It means that there’s starting to be a real debate and I think that one of the fears of progressives is that Hillary Clinton would coast to the nomination without even having to say what she believed and or debate with other candidates,” he said.

O’Malley appears to have already begun to take subtle jabs at Clinton while avoiding mentioning her by name.

“Do we have the ability as a party to lead by our principles?” O'Malley told NPR in April when discussing the 2016 race, in what seemed a dig at the accusations of political malleability that have long plagued Clinton. “Or are we going to conduct polls every time we try to determine where the middle is on any given day?”

“I'm glad she's come around to those positions on the issue of marriage equality, which we passed in Maryland. I'm glad she's come around to the issue of drivers licenses for new American immigrants so that they can obey the rules of the road,” O’Malley continued, referencing Clinton’s past opposition to same-sex marriage and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. “This was something we did also in Maryland. So I'm glad she's come around to those positions.”

O’Malley, for his part, has cultivated a reputation as a pragmatic progressive, undertaking a data-driven approach to policy and governance. During his two terms as Baltimore’s mayor, he laid claim to reducing violent crime and tackling other managerial problems by religiously using a management program called CitiStat to gather and analyze data. After being elected governor in 2006, he championed a solidly liberal agenda, ending the death penalty, legalizing same-sex marriage, offering in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants and pushing through tighter gun control measures.

Still, O’Malley's record in Baltimore has recently come under scrutiny for his support for aggressive policing tactics, particularly in light of the protests that shook Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore policy custody.

O’Malley also has considerable ground to make up if he hopes to win the nomination. In an April Washington Post/ABC News poll, O’Malley drew only 1 percent support among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, compared with 66 percent support for Clinton.

Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic consultant, said that long-shot challengers like O’Malley and Sanders have always had a chance to ignite the base in Iowa and upend the race, as President Barack Obama did in 2008. Although Iowa activists are pleased with Clinton’s performance so far, Link noted that more competition would be healthy for the nominating process.

“I think people are happy with the Clinton visits and what she’s been doing so far, but they also want a campaign and a contest, and that provides a real opportunity for Sanders and for O’Malley because no one’s interested in a coronation,” he said.  “And I don’t think there are many activists in Iowa that think that’s good for the Clinton campaign or for the Democratic Party.”  

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