Potential Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-MD) answers questions from reporters after speaking at the South Carolinna Democratic Party state convention April 25, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Win McNamee—Getty Images
May 6, 2015 12:28 PM EDT

Martin O’Malley has been known to call Doug Wilson from a pay phone when something important is about to happen.

The habit began during Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential bid, when the 20-year-old volunteer O’Malley reported to then-deputy campaign manager Wilson from the trail in Iowa, Texas and Pennsylvania. Years later, as a Baltimore prosecutor, O’Malley called Wilson when he decided to run for Baltimore City Council in 1991, and then again when he ran for Baltimore mayor.

“Martin would say, ‘I’m calling from a pay phone. Here’s what I’m about to do. Are you with me?’” Wilson recalled. “And of course I was.”

Now, O’Malley is preparing to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he talks regularly with Wilson and at least a dozen other alumni of Hart’s presidential campaigns about his platform, campaign strategy and fundraising. It makes sense, as both Hart and O’Malley share a technocratic pragmatism about policy, and O’Malley hopes to replicate Hart’s come-from-nowhere surge against former Vice President Walter Mondale in his race against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

For many former Hart staffers, O’Malley’s all-but-certain run is a way to get back some of the spirit of 1984.

“It’s almost like ghosts from the past, people who never gave up believing they could make a difference in the country, are coming back to support Martin,” said Wilson, who went on to serve as the senior Pentagon spokesman during President Obama’s first term.

Like Hart in 1984, O’Malley faces a long and unlikely path to the Democratic nomination. Despite his frequent appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire and long tenure in Maryland politics, he lacks a national profile and barely registers in most polls. If he runs, he’ll face Hillary Clinton, who has the broad support of the Democratic establishment, and Bernie Sanders, an underdog candidate who nonetheless has a strong claim on the progressive wing of the party.

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But supporters say that O’Malley’s campaign could quickly take hold in Iowa or New Hampshire, where restive caucus-goers are looking for a contested race. The model for a surge against Hillary Clinton? Hart’s surprise 1984 campaign against Mondale, when the virtually unknown senator from Colorado nearly took the nomination from the establishment-backed candidate.

O’Malley “has a lot of similarities to Hart in 1984,” says Hal Haddon, a Hart alum and informal O’Malley advisor. “Hart had no money or fundraising base, and Martin now has a unique ability to attract a small-donor base by casting a really broad net.”

Once a towering figure in the Democratic Party, Hart bred a close group of well-connected partisans during his two presidential bids that today include a senator (Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire), activists, high-profile politicians and businessmen. The veterans of Hart’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns remained in close contact over the years, and they regularly dispense advice to O’Malley. Federal records show they also donate heavily to the likely candidate’s political action committee.

“That was a tight-knit group and I was on the other side of it,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who helped on Mondale’s campaign against Hart. (Trippi is not advising O’Malley.) “When you get that close under fire in the trenches together, it makes sense that you’re helping them on their own campaign.”

Though allegations of a sex scandal ended Hart’s campaign in 1987, early polls indicated he had a strong lead, and many Democrats still see the former senator as a visionary thinker. Hart has said he would support O’Malley if he runs.

When he began volunteering on Hart’s campaign in 1983, O’Malley was one of the youngest in the bunch. He slept on couches in Iowa, visited farmers and store clerks, and brought his guitar with him. He was ambitious and focused, his allies say, and deeply committed to Hart. In Texas, he camped out for three months under a campaign staffer’s staircase, leading a couple fellow volunteers in campaign outreach. It was Hart himself who bought O’Malley his first legal beer on his twenty-first birthday.

“The experience we had knocking up Walter Mondale in ‘84 was an enormous bonding experience for all of us involved, and we stayed close,” said Dan Calegari, a staffer on both Hart’s campaigns.

Calegari is closely involved in helping arrange the former governor’s visits to New Hampshire and meetings with constituents, including his upcoming trip on May 13, and O’Malley sang at Calegari’s wedding rehearsal dinner. “I know the players. I know the people who are not committed to Hillary,” said Calegari. “I’ve got a network of friends who I brought into the Hart campaign in the ’80s.”

O’Malley has a few paid policy advisors and he is building out a campaign staff that includes finance directors and press. But for much of his pre-campaign thinking, O’Malley relies on an informal network of old friends and allies.

Hal Haddon was working on Hart’s ’84 campaign when he first met O’Malley. Haddon said he remembers O’Malley circling the Democratic National Convention in 1984, trying to dissuade delegates from voting for Mondale. “He was incredibly earnest, and he really cared about Hart’s candidacy,” said Haddon.

Now, the two discuss economics and environmental policy a couple times a month, Haddon says, in a “concrete way.”

“Not just tax reform,” said Haddon, “but a fundamental restructuring so it doesn’t disadvantage 99.9% of the population.” Haddon also contributed several thousand dollars to O’Malley’s PAC between 2012 and 2014, according to recent FEC records.

Wilson, Hart’s former deputy campaign manager, advises O’Malley regularly about foreign policy, an area where the former governor and Baltimore mayor has little personal experience. They kibitz about trade, security, surveillance and America’s role in the world, said Wilson, now a senior fellow at the Truman Project. “I think Martin has a sense of America’s role in the world as being able to adapt to and master change, and not be victim to it,” Wilson said.

O’Malley has profited from his relationships with Hart alumni as governor. John Emerson, a former deputy campaign manager for Hart, organized a fundraiser for O’Malley in 2006 when he ran for governor. (Emerson is now the ambassador to Germany.)

The relationships have helped Hart alumni, too. Billy Shore was a close aide to Hart in the 1980s during his presidential campaigns and remained in contact with O’Malley after the 1980s. He and his sister, Debbie, co-founded a non-profit called Share Our Strength with the goal of combating child hunger. O’Malley’s administration funded the non-profit nearly $400,000 for operational costs, and committed millions of dollars to child nutrition programs that Shore advocated for.

O’Malley also appeared in a video for the non-profit’s work and was one of the states that assisted Shore’s non-profit the most. Last year, Billy and Debbie contributed several thousands dollars to O’Malley’s PAC.

“It was unlike a usual relationship when an organization like ours is actively lobbying. The lobbying was coming from him,” said Billy Shore.

A number of other Hart alums have been in touch with O’Malley recently, including John Pouland, Hart’s Texas coordinator in 1984, and Mike Stratton, a Democratic strategist and Hart alum who donated $5,000 to O’Malley’s PAC last year, the maximum amount allowable.

“He’s got a lot of us on his side,” said another Hart veteran and advisor to O’Malley who asked not to be named because of his current job. “His friends have stuck with him.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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