O’Malley’s Campaign Opens Fire

ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA – By design, the First in the South Forum was meant to showcase candidates in a kinder, gentler light, going so far as to show pictures of the Secretary Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Governor Martin O’Malley from their twenties and to pose off-kilter questions that allowed them to break character. Despite all the good vibes and warmth, however, the real story was the wrangling and tug-o-war beneath the surface that threatened to seep into every grin and off-the-cuff moment.

First came O’Malley, who, in the kindest of polls, is rounding out at somewhere around six percent. Between halfhearted moments of jocularity and humanizing quips, he showcased his executive experience and painted himself as the freshest choice in a primary of stalwarts.

O’Malley’s strength has always been his charm: he’s a drink-til-dawn and strum a few tunes kind of fella who smiles and quotes liberally from Shakespeare and French political theorists and occasionally his excitement comes unbound and he nearly explodes from his seat. His enthusiasm was infectious at times, if not distracting, and seeing as this was his first national opportunity to talk straight to the American people without a moderator shifting to one of his more popular and widely known opponents, he scored one of the first successes of his humdrum campaign, followed a few moments later by his second.

The E-mail landed at exactly 8:32pm, just as the governor was stepping off the stage to let Sanders take his turn. Quoting a chunk of text from a 2012 The Nation article, the O’Malley campaign delivered a torpedo to Sanders’ side by relaying the fact that Sanders had called for Obama to face a challenger in his reelection and thus severed his connection to the president. During the conversation, in which Bernie occasionally dropped his gruff demeanor and made fun of himself – “Is this question about how many pairs of underwear I own?” he asked, grinning, or at least what passes as a grin for Sanders – another hit.

FACT CHECK: Echoing the NRA, Sanders Would Shield Gun Makers, Deals From Being Held Accountable By Victims – Gov. Martin O’Malley campaign communication during the Nov. 6, 2015 Democratic Forum

Then O’Malley launched another campaign missile attacking Sanders’ stance on Amtrak allowing weapons on their trains.

Unaware, Sanders zeroed in on his bread and butter and attacked the billionaire class that controls America and the ever-growing income gap that threatens to destabilize the Middle-Class. It was an interesting forum for his usual schtick and spiel, a place for his stump to grow and adapt to follow-ups and conversational theoreticals. He landed a few blows against Clinton, casually dismissing the quote he recently gave the Boston Globe – “I disagree with Hillary Clinton on virtually everything” – that some took as his signal that the gloves are finally being taken off of his relentlessly positive campaign.

The main attraction, as everyone knew it would be, was Clinton, who took the rock star route to the stage, pausing to shake hands and smiling for camera phone pictures. Her rapport with Maddow was easy and instantaneous, a connection that seemed tailor-made for both this format and the direction Clinton should try and push her campaign. It wasn’t a few minutes until the O’Malley campaign hit her as well and noted her comfort with Wall Street and big banks, both of which Clinton was claiming she opposed live on MSNBC.

The questions for Clinton were a little easier, a little warmer. There was no mention of her one-time opposition to gay marriage as she said that you had to continually fight for gay rights or a correction in her fabricated warning to hedge-funders and speculators to “knock it off” before the Financial Crash. Not even so much as a mention of the Iraq War or anything having to do, really, with foreign policy other than the softball: “Are you really as much of a hawk as people say?” She did everything she had to do, which was maintain. Clinton is legendarily good when she is favored and alone.

After the debate though, in the spin room outside the press-filing center, surrogates for Sanders were beset with questions regarding O’Malley’s E-mails. Clinton’s answered the charges roping her with the financial industry and her coziness with the tech sector, one of the few charges Maddow levied.

Instead of sending his endorsements to the hall, O’Malley took to the microphones himself, making his case again around executive experience and his continual adherence to principals that Clinton has only recently come around on. With a smile he poked fun at Sanders for not being an official Democrat and then leveled a harder indictment of his gun control stance. When asked about the E-mails, he shrugged.

“We’re just trying to let you know where these people stand.”

By tomorrow morning, if anybody watched this forum, O’Malley is going to gain followers. Already the social media numbers show a spike in searches, mentions, and overall activity. Also wrestling for ground, Sanders threw a few jabs of his own with his dissociation and new emphasis on legalization of pot and a renewed stress on voter’s rights, an issue Clinton hasn’t already coopted the way she has most of Bernie’s platform.

The articles this week are going to paint this event as a lovefest, a mewing love-letter from Maddow and MSNBC to the Left and the liberal slate, but what’s brewing here is a combustible situation. O’Malley and Sanders are ready to spar and have already drawn blood. Let it be known: this sleepy Democratic primary is waking up.

Photo: MSNBC’s “First in the South Democratic Candidates Forum” moderated by Rachel Maddow