Democrats' 2016 field set to grow with O'Malley's entry

(Gregory Hauenstein/Flickr)

BALTIMORE (AP) - Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is ready to enter the Democratic presidential campaign with a longshot challenge to Hillary Rodham Clinton for the 2016 nomination.

For the site of the official announcement Saturday morning, O'Malley picked a park in Baltimore, where he served as mayor before winning two terms as governor. Aides decorated the front of the stage with signs that read, "O'Malley for President 2016 New Leadership."

Demonstrators were expected nearby to protest against his law enforcement policies as mayor of a city recovering from recent riots.

O'Malley met donors Friday night and his advisers released a YouTube video of him strumming "Hail to the Chief" on a guitar. The video shows him nodding his head in agreement, followed by the words, "Stay tuned." In his spare time, O'Malley fronts an Irish rock band called O'Malley's March.

O'Malley has made frequent visits in recent months to early-voting Iowa, where he was headed after the Baltimore announcement, and New Hampshire. Still, he remains largely unknown in a field dominated by Clinton. Already in the race is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who could be O'Malley's main rival for the support of the Democratic left.

An ally of former President Bill Clinton, O'Malley was the second governor to endorse Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2007. But he says Democrats deserve a choice in the 2016 primary.

The 52-year-old O'Malley has spoken often about the economic challenges facing the nation and said he would bring new leadership, progressive values and the ability to accomplish things.

O'Malley has presented himself to voters as a next-generation leader for the party, pointing to his record as governor on issues such as gay marriage, immigration, economic issues and the death penalty.

Just weeks ago, riots in Baltimore broke out following the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died in police custody following his arrest last month.

Demonstrators planned to gather near Federal Hill Park during O'Malley's announcement to protest his criminal justice policies as mayor, an office he held from 1999 until his election as governor in 2006.

O'Malley was known for his tough-on-crime, "zero tolerance" policies that led to large numbers of arrests for minor offenses. Critics say it sowed distrust between police and the black community. Supporters note the overall decrease in violent crime during his tenure.

O'Malley has defended his work to curb crime, saying he helped address rampant violence and drug abuse. He has said the unrest in Baltimore should wake up the nation to the need to address despair in poor communities.

O'Malley could soon be joined in the Democratic field by former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who plans to make an announcement next week, and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who is exploring a potential campaign.

Sanders has raised more than $4 million since opening his campaign in late April and sought to build support among liberals in the party who are disillusioned with Clinton.

One of O'Malley's first tasks as a candidate would be to consolidate support among Democrats who are reluctant to back Clinton and eyeing Sanders.

"His first real hurdle here is not Secretary Clinton, it's Senator Sanders," said Craig Varoga, who was O'Malley's chief strategist during his 2010 re-election campaign but is not currently advising him. "There's no ambiguity at all with Senator Sanders on the issues and he came out of the gate with strong fundraising. He set a pretty high bar."

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