• Politics

Here’s How Underdog Martin O’Malley Plans to Win the Democratic Debate

7 minute read

Martin O’Malley will finally have the moment he and his campaign have been waiting for on Tuesday, when he steps onto a debate stage in Las Vegas and takes on the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

After months of hovering at around 1% in national polls despite frequent television appearances and grueling campaigning, the former Maryland governor’s goal is nothing less than a national introduction in front of the millions of viewers expected to tune in.

O’Malley’s focus in this first debate, hosted by CNN at the Wynne hotel in Las Vegas, will be broadcasting his own record as a two-term governor of Maryland and former Baltimore mayor, said advisors familiar with his preparation, though he will not shy away from pointing out inconsistencies in Clinton’s record.

He has spent many hours so far this month prepping with a cadre of top advisors, including campaign manager David Hamrick, deputy campaign manager Lis Smith, strategist Bill Hyers, and longtime advisor Steve Kearney. He’s also working with some in his extended circle of policy advisors, including former senior Pentagon spokesman Doug Wilson.

Before O’Malley gets to Las Vegas, he will have prepped under intense lights to imitate the feel of TV lights and spent hours taking questions and facing off against advisors. O’Malley’s advisors rotate in playing different roles, sometimes with one person playing Hillary Clinton and a second playing the rest of the candidates.

In Las Vegas, O’Malley faces two main rivals, Clinton and Sanders, who have dominated the Democratic primary and overshadowed his own candidacy. The former governor has often struggled to break through between the establishment-backed frontrunner and the progressive insurgent.

But O’Malley supporters say they hope that their candidate will be the surprise star of the debate next week, stealing the spotlight from Clinton and Sanders with a performance they hope will be similar to Carly Fiorina’s breakout moments in the Republican debates, which vaulted her toward the front of the pack.

The key will be a forceful performance that presents him with the most comprehensive progressive platform in the primary, advisors said.

“The distinctions I have with the current front runners of our party is I have fifteen years of executive experience—actually getting things done as a big city mayor and a governor,” O’Malley said earlier this week at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute when asked about the debate. “It’s one thing to have progressive values, it’s another to change those progressive values into progressive actions and accomplish results.”

So far, however, O’Malley has largely failed to gain any traction in the Democratic race. Despite setting up a leadership PAC long before announcing his candidacy and campaigning hard in the early states where his campaign has focused much of its resources and attention, he has struggled to top 4% even in Iowa, the first contest of the Democratic primary,

While his campaign has sought to downplay the importance of the first debate, it is a crucial moment in his candidacy that could determine whether he earns some traction on the national stage. O’Malley has been agitating for more debates and calling for more national airtime.

Read more: Martin O’Malley Plans Revolt Over Democratic Debate Rules

The former Maryland governor is known as an assiduous debate preparer, mastering long lists of fact sheets and minute policy differences. He has practiced a series of particular phrases during his months of campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire this year, including “new Americans” and “new leadership.” Advisors say the self-proclaimed policy wonk has pored over the data in preparation.

Smith posted a photo on Instagram last week of O’Malley standing at a podium, wearing a tight-fitting, cornflower-blue t-shirt.


“He was very disciplined,” said former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who faced O’Malley in debates in 2006 and 2010. “He knew what he wanted to say, and he was just going to say it. He went on some riffs, he knew his base and he always brought a lot more people to the debates than we did.”

But Tuesday will be the first time in years since O’Malley has been on a stage debating Democrats. During the 2006 race for governor—the last primary contest he ran—he never faced his Democratic opponent, Doug Duncan in a debate. Most of his debate experience is against Republicans, including on television in his role as chair of the Democratic Governor’s Association.

Read More: O’Malley Lobbies Sanders For More Debates

Craig Varoga, a former advisor to O’Malley who worked on his 2010 gubernatorial campaign said one important goal will be drawing a marked distinction with the other Democrats, whom he has plenty in common with.

“The challenge for him in this context is it’s been a very long time since he has been on stage with Democrats,” Varoga said. “I think for a challenger, which O’Malley is, you need a sharp issue distinction, rather than an issue distinction of degrees.”

O’Malley belonged to the Democratic Leadership Council, an alliance of centrist Democrats that helped propel Bill Clinton into the presidency. Hillary Clinton found much to like in his governorship: in an email dated April 2010 that Clinton sent as secretary of state to her friend Sen. Barbara Mikulski, she complimented O’Malley on his job as governor.

“How’s our friend, Martin, doing?” Clinton said in her email to Mikulski. “I know he has a rematch when he should be reelected by acclamation for steering the ship of state so well. Pls give him my best wishes.”

O’Malley has spent months criticizing Clinton for coming late to policy positions that the former Maryland governor says he has long voiced, including opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Keystone Pipeline and extensive Wall Street reform. On a couple of major Democratic issues, O’Malley sees a chance to paint Clinton’s record as inconsistent, according to sources, including on gun control and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Consistency—and getting there first—is a point of contrast he is eager to make with Clinton. And with Sanders, the surging Vermont Senator who has eclipsed all the other challengers for the Democratic nomination, O’Malley will seek to set himself up as an experienced leader and not simply an agitator.

It’s unclear how well O’Malley will be able to adept to unpredictable moments in the debate. In one memorable exchange during a 2010 debate with Ehrlich, O’Malley used the term “new Americans” to describe immigrants to the United States. Ehrlich retorted to laughs, “If someone breaks into my house is that a new member of my family that night?”

With so much riding on the debate, the O’Malley will rely on his preparation and his forcefulness.

“There’s a big difference between leadership and following the polls,” O’Malley said on MSNBC on Thursday. “I’m not very good at following the polls but I have learned to be very good at being an effective leader. Unlike the weathervane that blows in the wind, I know where I stand.”

Read next: How to Watch the Democratic Debate Online for Free

See the 2016 Candidates' Campaign Launches

Sen. Ted Cruz kicks off his campaign for 2016 Republican presidential nominee at Liberty University's Vines Center in Lynchburg, Va. on March 23, 2015. (
Sen. Ted Cruz kicked off his campaign for 2016 Republican presidential nomination at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. on March 23.Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images
Presidential Campaign Launch Rand Paul
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul launched his bid for the Republican nomination at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville on April 7. Supporters held signs with the slogan "Defeat the Washington Machine / Unleash the American Dream."Amy Harris—Corbis
Presidential Campaign Launch Hillary Clinton
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her campaign in a YouTube video posted April 12 that has been seen nearly 4.5 million times. One boy featured in the video boasted about playing a fish in a school play.Hillary For America
Presidential Campaign Launch Marco Rubio
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio announced his campaign for the Republican nomination during a rally at the Freedom Tower in Miami on April 13. He took a drink of water during the speech, a callback to his State of the Union response in 2013.Wilfredo Lee—AP
Presidential Campaign Launch Bernie Sanders
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his bid for the Democratic nomination across the street from the U.S. Capitol on April 30, 2015. The backdrop was unusual, since most candidates rail against Washington.Jonathan Ernst—Reuters
Presidential Campaign Launch Ben Carson
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson announced his bid for the Republican nomination at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts May 4, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. The launch featured a gospel choir covering Eminem's "Lose Yourself."Bill Pugliano—Getty Images
Presidential Campaign Launch Carly Fiorina
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced her campaign for the Republican nomination in a conference call on May 4, then went on "Good Morning America" to talk to George Stephanopoulos.Lou Rocco—Getty Images
Huckabee Presidential Campaign Launch
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announced his campaign at a community college in his hometown of Hope, Ark., on May 5. Singer Tony Orlando (right) performed.Left: Danny Johnston; Right: Matt Sullivan—Getty Images
George Pataki Republican 2016
Republican presidential candidate and former New York Governor George Pataki (C) greets supporters after formally announcing his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Exeter, N.H. on May 28, 2015. Dominick Reuter—Reuters
Lincoln Chafee Democrat 2016
Former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee announces his candidacy for the democratic presidential nomination at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. on June 3, 2015.Win McNamee—Getty Images
Lindsey Graham Republican 2016
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham announces his 2016 presidential candidacy in Central, S.C. on June 1, 2015. Erik S. Lesser—EPA
Martin O'Malley Democrat 2016
Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is joined by his wife Katie O'Malley (R) as he announces his intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination during a speech at Federal Hill Park in Baltimore on May 30, 2015. Jim Bourg—Reuters
Rick Perry Texas Republican 2016
Former Texas governor Rick Perry announces his candidacy for Republican presidential nominee at an event held at Addison Airport in Addison, Texas on Thursday, June 4, 2015.Louis DeLuca—Dallas Morning News/Corbis
Jeb Bush Campaign Launch
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush waves on stage as he announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination during an event at Miami-Dade College - Kendall Campus in Miami on June 15 , 2015.Joe Raedle—Getty Images
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump holds up his financial statement as he formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination at Trump Tower in New York
Donald Trump holds up his financial statement showing his net worth as he formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event at Trump Tower in New York City on June 16, 2015. Brendan McDermid—Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Kenner
Republican presidential candidate and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Kenner, La. on June 24, 2015. Jonathan Bachman—Reuters
Republican U.S. presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in New Jersey
Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie formally announces his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during a kickoff rally at Livingston High School in Livingston, N.J. on June 30, 2015. Brendan McDermid—Reuters
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Announces His Candidacy For President
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker greets supporters after announcing that he will seek the Republican nomination for president in Waukesha, Wis. on July 13, 2015 . Scott Olson—Getty Images
John Kasich 2016
Ohio Governor John Kasich arrives on stage to formally announce his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during a kickoff rally in Columbus, Ohio on July 21, 2015. Aaron P. Bernstein—Reuters

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com