Mr. O’Malley, meanwhile, has kept up an aggressive touring schedule, and regularly appears on the Sunday morning talk shows, mostly due to his official duties as head of the Democratic Governor’s Association, a job that has introduced him to the bigwig donors to the Democratic Party and has led him to occasionally cross paths with Mr. Cuomo.
Asked if he had spoken with Mr. Cuomo about their gay marriage strategy, Mr. O’Malley replied, “I think so. Not in depth. We certainly have talked on the phone periodically over the course of coordinating Democratic Governor’s Association activities and meetings and the like, and I certainly congratulate him not only on this accomplishment but on the outstanding job he has done as governor for the people of New York in a very challenging time.”
If the two face-off in 2016 however, it will be about more than just two handsome and popular young governors pitted against each other: it could be about the very soul of the Democratic Party. Mr. Cuomo has kept respectful distance from President Obama, seldom making the president’s case in public. (A Dicker column from July suggested even that Mr. Cuomo would prefer Mr. Obama lose to better increase his own chances of winning the White House.)
Mr. O’Malley, meanwhile, has become one of Mr. Obama’s most prominent surrogates, making the case for a vision of an active government in the service of a just society to whomever will listen.
“O’Malley seems a little more willing to be a more outfront progressive and I think that is a good thing to do as you speculate about the make-up of the electorate in 2016,” said Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who recently invited Mr. O’Malley to a private, off-the record lunch meeting with some of his colleagues at the Brookings Institution.
Maryland political observers say that the best way to figure out what Mr. O’Malley is going to do or say next is to look and see what Mr. Obama does. If Mr. Obama makes a speech on jobs, you can expect a similar one from Mr. O’Malley soon after; if Mr. Obama talks up his commitment to the environment, expect to see Mr. O’Malley posing in front of wind turbines soon after.
“He is essentially in the Roosevelt/LBJ social Democratic tradition,” said Mr. Raskovar. “He believes in government as a vehicle to assist people in need in society.”
His critics say that this desire led Mr. O’Malley to oversee the creation of huge budget deficits in Maryland. To close the gaps, Mr. O’Malley has pushed for higher taxes on alcohol, tobacco, sales and gasoline, and in his first term hiked up a surcharge on the state’s upper-income earners, something that Mr. Cuomo has refused to do so, despite regulars calls from the Occupy protesters and even some members of his own party that he do so.
“Of the two, Andrew Cuomo has a much more complicated track to run,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic consultant, pointing out that the politics of New York, plus its huge financial problems, making for a treacherous couple of years. “We are talking about a race five years away. I imagine both will be out campaigning for Democrats next year,” he said, “and after that, you can look for this to really start.” All of this has a lot of time to shake out. In five years, Mr. O’Malley could tack to the left. Mr. Cuomo could lurch to the right. The politics of gay marriage may move far slower than anyone anticipates. Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden could clear the Democratic field. But for the next several years, at least, the base of power in the Democratic party will be in an ideological tug-of-war along the I-95 corridor.
“There are no popular decisions a man or a woman who is a governor of state can make right now. But I think Governor Cuomo has been very effective,” Mr. O’Malley said. “So far.”