By Quint Forgey
Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley’s first campaign event of the New Year, an intimate town hall Saturday morning at the West Des Moines Public Library, started off about as well as the governor’s dismal six-point polling average in Iowa.
In the middle of his introduction from an elderly female supporter, a droning library PA system cut in to deliver a scratchy message concerning a dark-colored Honda Odyssey in the snow-blanketed parking lot.
But the candidate pressed on, exhibiting a cheerful verve belying a campaign struggling to break through the single digits.
In a small side room packed with roughly five-dozen supporters, O’Malley quoted Bruce Springsteen, name-dropped his four children and reminisced on his father, a bombardier who flew 34 missions over Japan in a B-24 Liberator and went to college on the GI Bill.
When a bearded senior sitting a few feet away from the governor asked the first question – a triple-pronged query on the threat of ISIS, Russian encroachment and Israeli-Palestinian relations – O’Malley flashed a smile before jumping into his high-polish talking points.
“Always beware of the guy in the front row,” O’Malley cracked, to widespread laughter.
His answers, piled thick with lofty themes, came in practiced bursts perfected after months on the stump. He called the United States a “living, self-creating mystery” and compared it to an eagle that “flies best when its left and right wings are working.”
Despite O’Malley’s mostly easy-going showing, a sense of urgency settled in when it came time to rally the older, overwhelmingly white crowd to caucus on February 1.
“I need you,” O’Malley said. “This is not an ordinary campaign year. This is nothing less than a fight for the soul of America.”
Joseph O’Hern, O’Malley’s caucus director, said the campaign has been organizing crowds of 150 to 250 people for the governor, doing its best to ensure all attendees will show up come caucus day.
“We put him in rooms where he can win over each individual,” O’Hern said.
But it may not be enough in Iowa, where 29 days before the caucuses, O’Malley’s message is seemingly failing to catch fire. Bernie Sanders is currently polling at 37 points in the state, while Hillary Clinton maintains a comfortable, nearly 13-point lead, according to the most recent Real Clear Politics average.
“The national media has a very strong desire to see a two-way race on the Dem side,” O’Hern said. “The Iowa press – they get it. They know what’s going on. That newbie at CNN doesn’t.”
O’Malley has also heaped blame on the Democratic Party for his failure to launch, citing a sparse debate schedule he thinks favors Clinton’s frontrunner status.
“It’s as though [Democratic National Committee Chairwoman] Debbie Wasserman Schultz is deflating a football for the winning team,” said Heather Ryan, an Iowan small business owner and O’Malley supporter.
Saturday’s town hall was the tenth O’Malley event Ryan has attended. Two of her daughters, 8-year-old Ireland and 6-year-old Piper, sat on the floor illustrating coloring books while the governor spoke.
For Ryan, it’s not tough keeping faith in her beleaguered candidate, despite his low standing in the polls. She said the Hawkeye state is full of surprises.
“You never know what’s going to happen. Crazy things happen in Iowa.”