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By MARK MILLER
WASHINGTON -- Gov. Martin O'Malley seized the opportunity at a breakfast with members of the national media to emphasize jobs and the economy as Democrats' unifying message this election year in Washington, D.C., Friday.
O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association and a top surrogate for President Barack Obama heading into the 2012 presidential election, said Democrats can gain an election-year advantage by focusing on their ability to lead the economic recovery. He made his remarks at "Inside Politics with Bill Schneider," a monthly press breakfast hosted by Third Way, a moderate Democratic-affiliated think tank.
"There's a very sharp contrast between these over-reaching Republican Tea Party governors and the Democratic Governors Association," said O'Malley, who singled out Republican counterparts Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, among others, for pursuing "wedge issues" -- like laws requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification at polling places -- rather than job creation.
O'Malley called Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's comments about likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney "a bit of a distraction" from the real message Democrats are trying to push. Schweitzer said Thursday that Romney may struggle to win over women voters because of his Mormon faith's history with polygamy.
"The real issue in this campaign is ... jobs and opportunity," said O'Malley, steering the topic back to his prevailing narrative. "We need to stay focused on the issues that matter to people."
But as for his own state's budget quandary, O'Malley said he was "hopeful" legislative leaders in the Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly would agree on a state spending plan for a special session in time to avert the "doomsday budget," which contains deep cuts to education and other areas.
"We're all independently elected people," O'Malley said, denying he has direct control over Democratic presiding officers. "But I think there are members of the General Assembly who look at how things broke down and said, 'This is not who we are.'"
O'Malley repeatedly referred to a metaphorical "silly bomb" as being responsible for a chaotic breakdown during budget negotiations on the last day of the regular legislative session, April 9.
"We had a great (legislative) session ... up until the very end," O'Malley insisted. "I'm hopeful that the presiding officers will put the pin back in the silly bomb and focus on the priorities of the people in our state."
Neither Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, nor House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, returned calls seeking comment.
Maryland's Democrats have had difficulties uniting not only in the legislature, but over the 6th Congressional District primary race, which saw upstart Potomac businessman John Delaney knock off O'Malley-endorsed state Sen. Rob Garagiola of Germantown. On Friday, O'Malley tried again to put the dissention to rest.
"I think (Delaney) waged a much better campaign (than Garagiola) ... which is why he's the better candidate for the fall," O'Malley said, citing Delaney's strong fundraising and heavy television presence.
But it is O'Malley's potential as a candidate that brought him to the Third Way breakfast, which billed him as a "hot prospect" for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential election.
Host Bill Schneider, a political analyst, frequent CNN contributor and distinguished senior fellow at Third Way, explained that O'Malley's position as DGA chairman, as well as media speculation that O'Malley could launch a presidential campaign after he leaves office in 2015, made him an ideal featured guest.
"The invitation was simply to indicate that (O'Malley) is usually on the list of leading Democrats who could be contenders in 2016," said Schneider, who noted that whether Obama or Romney wins this November, the race for the Democratic nomination will be wide open in four years. "And ... I think he should be on that list."
O'Malley punted on the 2016 question when pressed at the breakfast.
"People kindly mention me when they talk about what the future of our party holds," O'Malley said. He praised three other Democrats who are in the mix of possible 2016 contenders -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Vice President Joe Biden -- and added it was "nice" to be named among them.
But O'Malley remained noncommittal, saying, "The future will be. ... Four years is a long time."
Michael Cain, St. Mary's College political science professor, said he thinks O'Malley has a vested interest in getting national attention and pushing an economy-oriented narrative even as he wrestles with his own state's budget deadlock.
"He's made it clear that he thinks that in order to build a viable economy and a modern economy, you need to make investments, particularly in education," Cain said. "And he also has national ambitions, so he's taking to the national stage what he thinks is one of the strongest parts of his record here in the state, which is building a strong economy with those kinds of investments."