The Baltimore Sun:
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was in this first-in-the-nation caucus state Sunday to give the keynote address to hundreds at a Democratic barbecue — a role frequently reserved for likely presidential candidates.
The invitation, and decision to speak, is a step on O'Malley's march toward national prominence and fuels speculation about a possible run for the White House in 2016. Previous headliners at Sen. Tom Harkin's annual "Steak Fry" include Barack Obama, Richard Gephardt, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.
"If you are a politician, you don't casually go to Iowa," said Katie O'Conner, who was one of Howard Dean's top advisers when he ran for president in 2004. "You are obviously thinking of something. You don't just go for the heck of going."
(...) The first question from the Iowa press corps: Is it difficult to begin testing the waters in Iowa before the 2012 election has been held? (O'Malley replied: "I don't know. That is not what I'm doing.")
O'Malley said he came as a surrogate for President Obama to Iowa, where the polls have him just about even with challenger Mitt Romney. He also cited his responsibilities as the chair of the Democratic Governors Association to help lay groundwork for the next gubernatorial election in Iowa. It is two years from now.
(...) Campaign strategists see the Steak Fry as an important way to reach hundreds of the Democratic activists who act as surrogates and organizers during Iowa's unusual caucus process. Rather than a simple primary election, Iowa voters meet — sometimes for hours — and hear speeches from the various campaigns before making their selection.
The Steak Fry "is a regular stop on the Iowa pre-caucus circuit," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "O'Malley's obviously running for president if he can. Ergo, he needs to make an appearance, or more than one."
(...) The governor led the crowd of about 1,000 in the "forward not back" mantra he used a few weeks ago from Charlotte, N.C.
"We live in changing times. The question is: What kind of change to we want it to be?" O'Malley said. "How much less education do you really think would be good for our country?" he asked, a line he frequently uses.
He tailored the next question to the rural audience. "How many family farms can we no longer afford to save?" he asked.
The reception was mixed. Kate Ortiz, a 57-year-old teacher from Leon, Iowa, didn't like O'Malley's repeating the "forward not backward" lines. "His speechwriters, if he has any, need to tell him to drop the orchestrated crowd response," she wrote on a note that she left on a reporter's windshield. "I do not like feeling like an automaton repeating what I'm told to say."
Still, she liked parts of his speech and appreciated seeing him in person. "He sounded more like 'himself' today than a party-selected spokesman," she wrote. "I will be sure to pay attention when his name comes up again."
Others gushed. "You have a good governor," said Diane Pickle, a longtime Harkin volunteer. Touching her chest, she said: "I could follow him. He reminds me of Barack Obama."