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Will the first Democratic debate be Martin O'Malley's last stand?

In this photo taken Aug. 28, 2015, Democratic presidential candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

When the Democratic presidential candidates take the stage in Las Vegas for their first debate Tuesday, front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be at the center podium. To her right will be unexpectedly strong contender Sen. Bernie Sanders.

To her left will be a third place candidate who is barely polling at 1% nationally, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.

The two remaining candidates flanking the right and left sides of the stage, former Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor and Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, have not made much noise in the campaign. O'Malley, however, has been saying, and singing, quite a bit about issues like campaign finance reform and gun control. The problem is that very few people have been listening.

For O'Malley, that changes Tuesday night. Millions will be watching, and his performance could determine the future of his campaign, or if it even has a future.

"Tonight we're going to see an introduction," O'Malley Press Secretary Haley Morris told CNN. "This is the first time Democrats are going to hear from all the candidates on one stage and the governor has an important story to tell. He is the only person tonight who can say, 'I don't just hold these progressive principles. I have put them into action.'"

Experts say O'Malley--whose campaign has not responded to a request for comment on the debate--has raised expectations for himself by talking frequently about the importance of Tuesday's debate, which airs on CNN at 8:30 p.m. ET.

"I feel like the campaign really begins on Oct. 13 in a lot of ways," O'Malley told the Washington Post. "It's malpractice as a party to have waited so long to begin our debates. Eight years ago, we had already had nine debates."

"It's almost as if the Democratic race is only going to start once the debates start," he said in a Huffington Post interview.

In that interview, he provided a glimpse of his debate strategy: "I make it clear that I am the candidate that is not only speaking to where our country's going but has a track record of accomplishing progressive things."

O'Malley, who served as mayor of Baltimore before he was elected governor, has led the so-far-unsuccessful push for the Democratic National Committee to schedule more debates than the six announced. Other candidates have said they would be willing to participate in additional debates, but there is no indication the party will change the plan.

The aggressive calls for more debates have underscored how significant the events are for O'Malley.

"This debate is a very big deal for O'Malley, and he and his campaign have stoked that fact and raised expectations as far as possible," said Craig Varoga, a Democratic strategist who worked on O'Malley's 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

According to Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, O'Malley may find it difficult to sustain his campaign until the next debate in November if he does not have a significant impact Tuesday.

"He probably can't wait another month with a so-so performance or a performance that's not noticeable."

If O'Malley performs well and gets a bump from the debate, Kall noted that he is well positioned to take advantage of it. He will be attending a major Democratic Party fundraising dinner in Iowa later this month, the same state where the next debate will be held. A strong showing there could give him momentum going into the other early voting states.

"It may be overstating it" to call the debate a make-or-break moment for O'Malley, said Kirby Goidel of Texas A&M University, "but not by much."

"This gives an opportunity where people can at least hear his message," Goidel, a professor of political communication, said.

"You never want to say that one thing is pivotal, but he hasn't gained traction," said Arnie Arnesen, a political commentator and radio host on the Pacifica Network based in New Hampshire. "Bernie has sucked the oxygen out of his room."

The limited number of debates and the fact that they are starting so late makes it difficult for the lesser-known candidates to emerge, according to Republican strategist Lisa Boothe. She suggested that the schedule, which includes debates on weekends and around holidays, was intended to benefit Clinton.

"There's a reason why the DNC and Democrats have chosen to do so few debates," she said.

O'Malley could learn from the successful debate performance of Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, who Boothe said impressed GOP voters by providing articulate, smart, and succinct answers.

He faces several challenges in trying to make that kind of impression on Tuesday night.

Varoga said "the perfect debate" for O'Malley would mean he has accomplished three things:

"One, he found an issue where he and Clinton disagree, not just where she has come to the same position slower than he did, and make sure it's an issue that voters care about, and do it without dripping blood or being overly negative; two, he outflanked Sanders without jumping off the deep end into left-wing positions that general election voters would find disqualifying. And three, he viscerally communicated, without making it explicit, that there is no need for Joe Biden to get into this race."

Goidel envisioned similar ideal circumstances for O'Malley to stand out as a viable alternative: "Probably the best case scenario for him is that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton begin to go after each other a little bit and he can emerge as the adult in the room."

"He needs to interject himself into the middle of that main debate," Kall said, and the candidate will likely have a few good canned lines prepared to do that.

The Martin O'Malley who stood up at a DNC meeting over the summer and demanded more debates is the man who needs to show up on Tuesday, Arnesen said. He has to show that passion, and he has to prove that he has a track record of achieving results that Clinton and Sanders cannot match.

"He's going to be able to say, 'I haven't evolved. I've actually governed on these issues.'"

"The question is, does he find his voice?" Arnesen said.

Being passionate and being critical of Clinton without coming across as sexist will be a difficult balancing act for O'Malley and the other candidates. Rick Lazio in the 2000 New York Senate race and Barack Obama in the 2008 election struggled with this issue when they debated her.

"The problem that a lot of the guys tonight are going to have is that she's the only female on the stage," Arnesen said, recommending that they focus on policy differences if they attack Clinton. The Democratic base does not share the aversion to political correctness that has boosted Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the Republican race.

"On the Democratic side, anything you say can be offensive...We still believe that manners matter. We still believe that respect matters," Arnesen said.

Boothe, however, suggested that O'Malley could benefit from being more daring and aggressive.

"There is always that danger," she said, "but I would say as someone who is really down in the polls...with that also comes the opportunity that you don't have a whole lot to lose."

Analysts say O'Malley's position at the podium next to Clinton could help him, but with only five candidates on the stage, it may not be a significant factor.

"When you've got ten candidates, placement matters," Arnesen said, referring to the large Republican debates. "When you've got five, it's less of an issue."

The pace will be different from the Republican debates too, with each candidate having significantly more time to talk over the course of two hours.

If O'Malley decides to jump into an argument between Clinton and Sanders, being right next to her will be helpful, Arnesen said. What he actually says will matter more, though.

"It lends him a little bit of credibility" to be next to the two strongest contenders, Boothe said. "The rest is sort of up to him to articulate his case to voters."

Kall agreed that the positioning could make it easier for O'Malley to turn it into a three-person debate if he gets aggressive with Clinton and Sanders.

"That placement allows the moderator to do better back and forth between those three candidates."

Amy Bree Becker, an associate professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland, noted that the camera will often be on Clinton, both when she is speaking and reacting to what others say.

"The closer you are to her, the greater the likelihood you're going to be in that frame."

O'Malley also needs to consider how the debate and the subsequent spinning will play out on social media, something that Democrats did not have to worry about in their last primary debates in 2008.

"So much of the discussion is happening on a second screen," Becker said.

A particularly good or bad moment will be dissected and replayed over and over in the coming days on cable news and online, so he must display both caution and aggression when much of the focus is on the back-and-forth between Clinton and Sanders.

Obscurity can be an advantage, Goidel suggested. O'Malley can use this debate to position himself and define himself without many preconceived notions.

"I think people just have to remember his name when it's over," Becker said.

With Clinton fighting off a challenge from Sanders, Biden still weighing his options, and the other candidates barely registering with voters, this is not the way many political observers expected the Democratic race to go.

"Martin O'Malley is the story because on paper nine months ago he was supposed to be a stronger candidate," Arnesen said. As a former mayor and governor, he has more executive experience than any of his opponents and he has positions that are popular with the Democratic base.

O'Malley has mapped out 15 goals "to rebuild the American Dream" that touch on many top liberal priorities, including income inequality, renewable energy, and criminal justice reform. In another election cycle, that might have gotten more attention from voters.

"He very much anticipated and expected that the anti-Hillary Clinton, the progressive vote would go to his campaign," Goidel said.

"You would think if [Democrats] were looking for an alternative to Clinton...that he'd be a more attractive choice" than a 74-year-old self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont, Kall said.

Instead, O'Malley has struggled in the polls, most of which have consistently shown his support at 2% nationally or less. He peaked at 5% in one poll in June. While Clinton and Sanders announced last week that they raised over $20 million in the last quarter, O'Malley still has not released his numbers.

He has, however, written a song for one of his donors.

A singer and guitarist in a Celtic rock band, O'Malley's March, the former governor has broken out his instrument on numerous occasions, including playing for change on a Wall Street sidewalk.

After the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody earlier this year and the subsequent riots, O'Malley's record on crime and policing has come under fire. Becker said he has faced a lot of criticism in Maryland, which may explain why he is only polling at 4% in his home state.

She also observed that O'Malley has simply not gotten much media attention. The major media narratives of the Democratic campaign have focused on Clinton's emails, the grassroots support for Sanders, and speculation about Biden.

"I think that this is not his time," Becker said.

Arnesen agreed that O'Malley has not really had a chance to introduce himself to voters so far, in part because of the media attention focused on Clinton's emails.

"That's the only conversation we've had on the Democratic side," she said. "How do you punch through?"

Arnesen suggested that the early focus of O'Malley's campaign on his resume and experience may have hurt him in this election cycle, because voters do not seem to care about that this year.

"On paper, he should be the alternative [to Clinton], but this is not the landscape that anyone predicted."

Boothe also pointed out that most establishment Democrats rallied around Clinton early in the race, making it more difficult for another mainstream candidate to break through. Sanders has succeeded largely by igniting grassroots support instead.

Unfortunately, Kall said the biggest factors in the future of O'Malley's campaign are completely out of his hands. If Vice President Biden enters the race, that would undercut O'Malley's case as the electable alternative to Clinton.

"Even if O'Malley had the performance of his life tonight, that wouldn't be enough to stop the Biden train coming."

The trajectory of the controversy surrounding Clinton's email practices is dependent on what investigators find in the documents and Clinton's reaction to them. Her appearance before the House Benghazi Committee on October 22 could damage her campaign if she performs poorly.

Experts agree that it is not too late for O'Malley to become a serious contender, pointing to Clinton's slumping favorability ratings and the strong support for Biden to enter the race.

A Fox News poll released Tuesday shows Biden doing better than Clinton head-to-head against top Republican candidates. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Clinton's unfavorability at 49%, a slight improvement from the 53% she registered in August. She remains the top candidate among Democratic primary voters by a wide margin, but that support may be soft.

"There's an openness among Democrats for another candidate to come in," Boothe said.

"The impetus for him is to show some forward momentum," Goidel said of O'Malley, or his fundraising will start to dry up and he will face calls to get out of the race. He needs to attract more money and media attention in order to build up his campaign organization.

O'Malley may already be looking further ahead, though, to a 2020 run or to securing a position in the next Democratic president's cabinet.

"People run for a lot of reasons," Arnesen said. "Sometimes they run for a cabinet position."

If that is his goal, he may be reluctant to hit Clinton too hard in the debates. On the other hand, he may want to prove to her that he is ready to fight.

"There might be more respect if he's able to take some jabs at her," Arnesen said.

O'Malley's long-term role in the Democratic Party may be a consideration, according to Goidel, but that is just one more reason why a strong performance is so important.

"This is a way to increase visibility nationally. This is a way to advance within the party," he said.

If O'Malley truly wants to be elected president in 2016, Tuesday's debate is his best--and possibly last--chance to prove it.

"This is the moment," Kall said.


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