Can this Democrat really beat Hillary Clinton?

Council Bluffs, Iowa (CNN)Marcia Keefer watched Martin O'Malley methodically work the room at a recent Democratic fundraiser in Davenport, Iowa, and readily acknowledged she knew nothing about the former Maryland governor.

"I have to ask, is he running for something or is he something already?" said Keefer, a retiree attending the Scott County Democratic Party's fundraiser.
Keefer, who said she planned to support Hillary Clinton in next year's Democratic caucus, wasn't alone. Almost everyone at the dinner said they knew very little, if anything, about O'Malley.
That confusion crystallizes the central challenge O'Malley faces if he decides to pursue a long-shot run for the Democratic presidential nomination. He must find a way to dent the Clinton political machine and prove that he's a competitive candidate -- not just a backup for progressives who would rather see Elizabeth Warren in the White House.
    And it's in Iowa where O'Malley must stake his ground. Failure here would almost certainly doom his campaign. But if he manages to do better than expected -- or even stage an upset -- O'Malley could emerge as a real challenger for Clinton.
    Given his reception here this past weekend, there could be a sliver of an opening.
    After O'Malley delivered a red meat political speech to a room packed with union workers, Keefer left with several O'Malley political signs tucked under her arms.
    "He said a lot of things that I wanted to hear and got me all revved up to get out there and get the vote out for Democrats," said Keefer, who noted that O'Malley had given her second thoughts about who she might support in next year's Democratic caucus. "He was wonderful tonight. Just wonderful and I never heard of him."
    A similar scene played out several times over O'Malley's two-day trip to Iowa this past weekend, as he criss-crossed the state, meeting with influential early Democratic voters. He entered many rooms as a blank slate and often walked out to favorable reviews.

    Long odds for the nomination

    While O'Malley sees an opening in Iowa, 48 hours on the ground is just one step in his run for the White House. For now, national and Iowa polling consistently indicate Clinton is the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination.
    Only 1% of Democratic voters picked O'Malley as the first choice to be their party's presidential nominee, according to a March CNN/ORC national poll. A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll of Iowa Democrats offered similar results. Meanwhile, Clinton is lapping the potential field of candidates with a whopping 62% support among national Democrats in the CNN poll, while 56% of Iowa Democrats favored her.
    O'Malley recognizes his current standing, but emphasized it is early in the process and that polling will not factor into whether he decides to run for the Democratic nomination.
    "When you start off as potential candidate for president and your name recognition is low, you have to just go from county to county, from town to town and engage people in order to change that around," O'Malley said in an interview with CNN following a Democratic meeting in Tipton. "I guess another way to say it is this: Look, it is not unusual for there to be an inevitable front-runner early in a contest who has fantastic name recognition, and is therefore inevitable right up until he or she is no longer inevitable."
    O'Malley said that's why he spent two days meeting with Democratic voters in both large and small settings in a state that can propel a candidate to the top of the leader board.
    "It is also not unusual -- because of the intimate nature of the campaigns in these early states -- for someone the rest of the country has not yet come to know to suddenly become very well known if they are willing to do the hard work and deliver the needed message for our country in town after town after town across Iowa and New Hampshire," he said, before jumping in the car for his next event in Cedar Rapids.

    A slight opening

    The spark of interest by Iowa voters who saw O'Malley last weekend stems at least in part from his ability to connect with voters. But he's also benefiting from fear there won't be a competitive Democratic contest in Iowa, Clinton's absence from the stage here and apprehension that Clinton is not liberal enough.
    "I think there is a little bit of hesitancy on the part of Democrats to jump on the Hillary bandwagon at this point because they are not convinced," said Larry Hodgden, chair of the Cedar County Democrats. "For one thing she hasn't been out here talking to us, and we like to have people come out and see us, obviously. And we don't know exactly how strong she is going to be for the progressive ideas that most of your active Democrats in Iowa do have."
    Iowa Democrats, even those who openly support Clinton, said they would like to see a contested race for the party presidential nomination. A candidate who is battle tested in the primary is inevitably stronger in the general election, Iowa Democrats said in numerous interviews with CNN. Coupled with this sentiment was a strong feeling that it was good for Iowa Democrats to have a competitive battle for the nomination.
    After all, Iowa Democrats have been sitting on the sideline since 2008 when there was a fierce battle between Clinton, then-Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards to win the caucus. In 2012, Obama faced no primary opposition in his successful bid to win a second term -- leaving all of the political oxygen to Republicans in that year's open contest for the GOP nomination.
    "We are always looking for a second choice," said Clara Oleson, a retired lawyer from West Branch, who was staffing the 'Ready for Hillary' table at the Cedar County Democrats Off-Year Democratic Caucus. "And we take our responsibility seriously to vet candidates."
    Oleson cited Clinton's experience as secretary of state as one of the reasons why she is supporting Clinton's likely presidential bid. Yet Oleson warned it would be presumptuous to say a Clinton victory is a certainty in next year's caucus.
    "There is no lock," she said. "There is no inevitability. Not here."

    O'Malley's sell

    Over his two-day campaign swing, O'Malley played to the left of the political center as he made his case to Iowa voters during this campaign swing. He railed against Wall Street, emphasized the need to rebuild the middle class, and highlighted his support for issues of particular import to women such as expanded childcare, paid leave, and equal pay.
    "It is true that when women succeed, America succeeds," O'Malley said at the Davenport fundraiser, triggering a standing ovation.
    He also sought to highlight his work in office both as governor and as mayor of Baltimore -- an introduction of sorts to an audience that knew very little about him. And O'Malley repeated the need to cast aside triangulation -- a political strategy of centrism associated with former President Bill Clinton -- believed to be a veiled criticism of Hillary Clinton.
    "Triangulation is not a strategy that will move America forward," O'Malley said in Davenport.
    The next morning, in the CNN interview, O'Malley would not say his criticism of triangulation was directed at Clinton.
    "I am referencing a malady in our party that has allowed us to accept half solutions as full responsibility," he said.
    O'Malley was also careful in presenting his vision for the future, while not being critical of Obama, whose victory in the 2008 Iowa caucus helped him eventually win the Democratic nomination.
    "President Obama has done a lot of good and very difficult things to save us from a second Great Depression," O'Malley said in the CNN interview. "The very fact that we have an economy creating jobs now for 60 months in a row is a really positive development. But with wages going down for 12 years, this work is not yet completed. ... We have to bring forward a different and better way of governing in order to get our economy to work for all of us again."

    Guitar hero

    At his final stop in Council Bluffs, O'Malley eyed a guitar in the corner of Dixie Quicks restaurant, where the Pottawattamie County Democrats were holding a fundraising dinner. He turned to his aide and asked, "Can I play a song?" The aide asked the band if that was OK and was given the thumbs up. O'Malley, who plays in a Celtic rock band that bears his name, had his closer.
    Standing on a small, shaky chair so that the 70 or so people in the back could see him, O'Malley recited similar populist political themes that he had spoken about earlier in the day and the previous night. He then asked the confused audience if they wanted to hear a song and proceeded to play the guitar and sing Passenger's "Scare Away the Dark." He even coaxed the audience to join him in singing the song's chorus.

    He'll be back

    This was not O'Malley's first time visiting Iowa -- he was the keynote speaker at the Iowa Democratic Party's 2014 State Convention, donated more than $45,000 to Iowa Democrats in the last election cycle and paid the salaries of several Democratic staffers to work in Iowa. Early investments that may pay off if he decides to run for president.
    On this trip, O'Malley had a team of videographers chronicling his speeches and interactions with Iowa voters -- creating a library of fresh campaign footage if he decides to take the leap.
    Asked to describe what his campaign would look like if he decides to run, O'Malley told CNN: "It will be a campaign of ideas and a campaign of principle based on our national interests."
    Pressed if it would be a large operation or a run-gun grassroots campaign, O'Malley smiled and said, "Well, first it will be a small campaign and then it will be a really large campaign."
    He reiterated that his timeline to make a decision to run for president would happen sometime this spring. Coincidentally, he returns to Iowa next month to headline a dinner for Polk County Democrats.