Martin O'Malley waited for the question. He slid forward in his seat. He sat up straight and smoothed his jacket. He took notes on a slip of paper as the other governors spoke. Then it came: a question about the border crisis, and the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrant children detained in U.S. facilities.
O'Malley's words were slow and measured, but his comments broke aggressively with President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the woman believed to have hold of the next Democratic nomination, if she wants it — though she isn't talking or acting like a candidate yet, not entirely. Not like O'Malley.
He spoke about the "power of our principles," about believing that "hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity," a belief that "unites us all."
He argued that the children — he called them "refugees" — should be entitled to make "their case for protection and asylum"; that it would be "contrary to everything we stand for as a people to try to summarily send children back to death."
He suggested that the president, and presumably Clinton, could "at least have been doing a better job" of building partnerships with the Central American countries, many torn by gang violence, from where most of the minors are coming. "We have failed to be good partners and neighbors," he said.
Inside the banquet room of the Nashville Hilton, reporters quickly took notes. Press conferences for the Democratic Governors Association were usually more routine.
Almost immediately, O'Malley picked up headlines and the support of national immigration activist groups like United We Dream. Obama and Clinton say "more deportations of kids," the group tweeted the next day. "Governor O'Malley has a different idea." Last month, Clinton said the minors should be "sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are." The president has said he supports laws to speed up deportations.
The White House was so bothered by the comments they called O'Malley to complain, then appeared to leak the call to the press on Tuesday night.
O'Malley has bucked the administration on immigration before; this spring, he announced that Maryland would no longer comply with parts of the federal program that facilitates deportations. But his comments last weekend signaled the extent to which O'Malley looks like a guy running for president.
Aides say that was always the idea. In the last year, the governor has stepped up efforts to put together what he has called a "framework" for a national campaign: He's traveling the country to stump for Democrats, he's speaking at state party dinners, he's raising money, and he's working on developing new policies.
In recent months, those efforts have intensified. About a dozen friends, former aides, strategists, and a handful of donors and fundraisers ready to support O'Malley if he runs, say they see the governor moving forward with those plans without a shade of hesitation.
"I don't think he's worried about who's in or who's out," said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who first met O'Malley during the 1984 presidential race. Trippi worked for the Walter Mondale campaign, and O'Malley for Gary Hart.
"That makes him more aggressive than others and a lot more open, because he's not looking over his shoulder thinking about who is and who isn't," Trippi said. "He's building the national infrastructure and fundraising. He's been doing this methodically and building it without any regard for who else runs."
Clinton, who has super PACs and millions of dollars lined up behind her possible campaign, has said she won't make up her mind about running until the end of this year. Even then, she may not announce her plans until the following spring.
Aides have suggested O'Malley is unlikely to run if Clinton gets in the race. But people close to the governor say that, until that happens, he's going for it.
Shaun Adamec, who worked as O'Malley's press secretary for more than three years, said the governor will "do what he's doing for as long as he can do it."
"I think people are going to be surprised at the amount of time he does this," Adamec said. "He's got a powerful record of what he's done in Baltimore and Maryland. I think it's a liberating experience for him to just sort of say it."
O'Malley, 51, started in politics as a city councilman in Baltimore. In 1999, in a crowded, divisive mayoral campaign, O'Malley ran on crime and won. His new stump speech — which he used for the first time last November at a party dinner in New Hampshire, the important primary state — highlights the "BELIEVE" drug and crime campaign he launched during his second year as mayor.
And with a Democratic state legislature, he pushed bills on immigration and same-sex marriage; he funded an offshore wind project and passed firearm restrictions; and, during the last legislative session of O'Malley's tenure, raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The structurally flawed Maryland health care exchange, abandoned this spring for another state's model, accounts for one of the major failures of the governor's eight-year tenure.
People in the governor's orbit say he's now looking for what's next — for new ideas on economic policy, on income inequality, and on problems like climate change. It's a process O'Malley has described in recent interviews as "a lot of listening."
O'Malley has made several trips, the most recent at the start of this year, to the Center for American Progress, a leading liberal think tank in Washington, for briefings on the economy, income inequality, health care, and climate, among other issues, according to Carmel Martin, the group's vice president for policy.
Martin, who sat in on the briefings, said he's been primarily interested in economic issues, at the federal and state levels. "He seems to be focused on both." The conversations were often rooted in finding the "next good idea," she said.
Trippi, the strategist, said a significant portion of O'Malley's preparatory work has focused on idea-building. "It strikes me that he has really thought and is thinking a lot about policy. He's looking at what new thinking needs to be injected into the debate," he said. "He's on a mission to find a vision for the future."
Friends of O'Malley say his experience on the 1984 Gary Hart campaign has been central to his thinking. When Hart, a U.S. Senator from Colorado, first announced he was running, he barely registered on national polls against Vice President Mondale. But he had new ideas, and his dark-horse campaign almost worked.
Democrats in New Hampshire who have been around long enough still remember the college kid on the campaign, sleeping on floors around the state. And a Google group for Hart alums often features emails about the latest on O'Malley.
Like Hart, O'Malley can hardly get his name on some of the early presidential polling. (In several surveys, he garners less than 1% of Democratic support up against names like Clinton and Biden.) But he is not without supporters. His early efforts have the backing of donors and fundraisers.
Paul DiNino, a lobbyist and fundraiser, is one. DiNino raised money for all four reelection campaigns for Tom Harkin, the U.S. Senator from Iowa, and supported Clinton in her 2008 presidential race after serving as the national finance director for the Democratic National Committee under Bill Clinton. DiNino, who lives in Maryland, said he's already helped direct donors to O'Malley's PAC.
"It hasn't been difficult," DiNino said. He cited a recent meeting with a "prominent northeastern entrepreneur," who had only met O'Malley once but committed. "The guy said, 'I wasn't with Clinton last time. I'm not gonna be with her this time. I'm with you." (The businessman declined through DiNino to be named.)
"Certainly the army of people in Maryland who have national contacts are being as helpful as possible," said DiNino.
A more unlikely O'Malley backer is John P. Coale, the well-known Washington attorney and the husband of the Fox News anchor, Greta Van Susteren.
The lawyer supports an odd cadre of politicians including Democrats and Republicans like Sarah Palin. He has known O'Malley for "a decade or two" and said he has "a lot of friends in the media I plan to sit him down with." Coale backed Clinton in 2008, but said he's "better friends" with the governor.
In the last year, Coale has chartered flights on his private plane for six trips O'Malley has taken to give speeches or make campaign stops, according to filings for the governor's PAC and the Democratic Governors Association. (Coale frequently accompanies O'Malley on the flights, and the two will discuss the event on the ride home, he said.)
For some of the donors behind O'Malley, part of the appeal lies in the reality that Clinton already has a very crowded, established network of backers.
"That is a full boat. There is a waiting list. You need a significant number to be someone in that world," DiNino, the fundraiser, said. "On the other hand, if you were willing to pitch a governor from an east Atlantic state — that's a good investment. He's not going anywhere. He's got a loud voice in the debate whether it's part of this administration, or the next, or in the Senate, or as our chief executive."
Since 2013, O'Malley has headlined 11 state and local Democratic Party events, hosted fundraising events for 18 candidates, and has made campaign stops for six Senate and gubernatorial races, according to his political office. Later this month, he is slated to speak at a Nebraska Democratic Party dinner. Next month, he goes to Mississippi to speak at their Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
The travel schedule makes O'Malley one of the party's most visible national surrogates, second only perhaps to Vice President Joe Biden. And the work has helped him make a mark on Democrats where other possible candidates haven't.
Jim Hodges, the former governor of South Carolina and a prominent figure in the state's Democratic Party, said O'Malley has shown interest in traveling to the primary state "more than anyone." He noted that O'Malley is always eager to meet with as many people as possible during trips there. Last year, Hodges set O'Malley up for a donor meeting before his speech at an issues conference in Charleston.
"There are a lot of people that like him," Hodges said.
In Wisconsin, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, remembers the thought O'Malley put into his visit there in April. "It isn't land an hour before the event and wheels up an hour after," said Mike Tate, the chair. "He's a very hands-on guy."
Tate said that after trip, he and his executive director both received hand-written notes from O'Malley and a follow-up email sent from his personal address.
"Stuff like that for a state party really goes a long way," said Tate.
O'Malley's focus on campaigning for other Democrats may increase this year, particularly as his likely successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, gets ready to take over in Maryland. Hodges, who keeps in touch with O'Malley, said the governor is likely to "exit the stage" in Maryland, so as not to "cast a shadow" over Brown, whom he campaigned for during an ugly primary battle this year. (When Brown won the nomination in June, O'Malley notably did not attend the victory party. He wanted to let Brown have his night, one person close to the campaign said.)
"I imagine he'll speak out a lot more," said Hodges.
Even if O'Malley never gains an inch on Clinton, he is still has something: At the moment, he's the only Democrat acting like a serious candidate.
Clinton may get in the race sometime next year — and she has plenty of surrogate organizations doing work on her behalf — but personally, she has spent the summer selling her memoir on a book tour that has skipped primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Aides have suggested she'll do campaign stops after Labor Day, and that her husband will be an aggressive surrogate. But so far, since stepping down from the State Department last year, she has appeared on behalf of just one candidate — her close friend, Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia.
Earlier this month, the second-largest paper in Iowa wrote a staff editorial urging Clinton to come to the state, which her 2008 campaign considered skipping altogether at one point. "We need to see that connection in action," the editorial read. "We'd suggest sooner rather than later this time."
"What's missing out there today is a voice — any voice," said DiNino, the fundraiser with experience in Iowa politics. When DiNino was working on a congressional campaign there in 2006, there were no fewer than eight Democrats — Obama, Clinton, John Edwards, Mark Warner, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson — who were in Iowa "supporting, stumping, providing field."
"That's just not there now," except for O'Malley, DiNino said. "I'm happy that there's someone not only who has a message that resonates, but who will go out there."
Friends and supporters also make the point that O'Malley seems to be enjoying himself, despite his long odds.
Or as Adamec, the former aide, put it, "He's probably having a little fun, too."
"There's something that he has that's missing with a lot of politicians," said Hodges. "There's a certain joyfulness to the way he handles politics. It's like he's having fun. And for the last seven years, with the president, that seems to be missing."
"I think Hillary Clinton showed it in the last stage of the '08 campaign," he said. "I think, yes, she showed it. But she's been out of it for a while."