DES MOINES, Iowa — Martin O'Malley's latest foray into Iowa begins, appropriately, in a place called Clinton.
The Maryland governor is filling the void in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond during the early stages of the 2016 presidential race, campaigning for fellow Democrats and making personal appeals while former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton remains the prohibitive — if yet undeclared — favorite.
In the summer before November's mid-term elections, Clinton's dominant position in a hypothetical field has limited Democrats' activities in early presidential voting states even while an ambitious slate of Republicans descend. Active Democrats here say O'Malley has become an exception, cultivating relationships and developing a reputation as a loyal foot soldier for the party.
"He's doing more than anybody else," said Mike Gronstal, the Iowa Senate Democratic leader. "Others have indicated they are interested in doing some things. But we haven't seen it yet." He declined to name the other Democrats who have inquired.
O'Malley is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign whether or not Clinton runs, although it remains unclear if he will challenge the popular former first lady. O'Malley was the second governor to endorse Mrs. Clinton's presidential campaign in 2007 and maintains ties to former President Bill Clinton, who brought the then-Baltimore mayor to Northern Ireland on a presidential delegation trip in 2000 and appeared in an ad for O'Malley during his first campaign for governor.
As his second term in Maryland ends, O'Malley has visited New Hampshire twice since November and raised money for Gov. Maggie Hassan, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — a fellow alumnus of Gary Hart's presidential campaigns — and Rep. Annie Kuster. In South Carolina, O'Malley has held events for Vincent Sheheen, who is challenging GOP Gov. Nikki Haley, and Bakari Sellers, who is running for lieutenant governor.
O'Malley was returning to Iowa on Saturday, headlining a fundraiser for state Sen. Rita Hart in Clinton, a town on the banks of the Mississippi River, and another event in North Liberty for Kevin Kinney, a Johnson County sheriff's deputy seeking an open state Senate seat. After a Saturday night speech in Omaha to help the Nebraska Democratic Party, O'Malley was joining with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch, who is challenging Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, for fundraisers in western Iowa on Sunday and a canvassing kickoff in Sioux City.
O'Malley made a round of fundraising appearances for Hatch in Iowa last month, along with a speech at the state party convention. Iowa Democrats hold a narrow majority in the state Senate and party officials here said the governor's willingness to wade into local races was appreciated — and duly noted.
"Helping out legislative races is a really smart strategy. It's an easy way to come out and be helpful," said Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. He noted that O'Malley got his political start in Iowa, as a field organizer for Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign in eastern Iowa.
O'Malley's fundraising and campaign travel has coincided with a policy fight with the Obama administration on the stream of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America over the Mexican border. He recently criticized a White House proposal that could expedite the deportation of the children, saying it would "send them back to certain death." Obama's team pushed back, leaking a phone call in which the governor asked the White House not to have children brought to a Maryland facility.
O'Malley's stance has won support within Latino groups and has marked a contrast with Clinton. She said at a televised forum that she felt the children needed to be reunited with their families but the U.S. needed to make clear that "just because your child gets across the border doesn't mean your child gets to stay."
To be sure, O'Malley is not the only Democrat extending feelers in the politically active state. Clinton, who placed a disappointing third in the 2008 caucus, recorded a humorous tribute to retiring Sen. Tom Harkin that aired at the state party convention dinner. Ready for Hillary, an unaffiliated organization laying the groundwork for a Clinton campaign, has been active in Iowa and Democrats are buzzing about whether Hillary Clinton — or former President Bill Clinton — will appear at Harkin's annual steak fry in September, his last as a senator.
Biden, who headlined the steak fry last year, notably dropped by a Washington hotel in May to greet a group of Iowans attending the Greater Des Moines Partnership meeting. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar plans to campaign next month in Iowa for Rep. Bruce Braley, who is seeking Harkin's seat.
Hart, the state senator and one of O'Malley's beneficiaries this weekend, said she has never met the governor before or spoken to him — his staff reached out about the fundraiser. She said her husband's aunt lives in Maryland, admires his record and urged her to get to know him. But like many Iowans, that's the extent of her knowledge for now.
"I really don't think many people know anything about him. I think he's a pretty new name to a lot of people," Hart said. "That's probably why he's coming — he wants to change that."