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Martin O'Malley hopes winnowed field will boost flagging campaign

After being stuck at 1%, the former Maryland governor hopes a three-person field will give him the attention he needs.

DES MOINES, Iowa – A dramatically slimmed down Democratic presidential field will make its debut here Saturday night at a key Democratic Party event that is known for making or breaking presidential candidates, and some are wondering whether the three-person field could soon lose another candidate.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has found himself the third wheel in a race dominated by front-runner Hillary Clinton and challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders. That after a week that saw the exits of former senators Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, along with the decision of Vice President Joe Biden to forgo a bid.

But where some Democrats – including those affiliated with the other two campaigns – smell blood, O’Malley aides think the winnowed field will give him a chance to finally break out of the 1% rut his campaign has been stuck in since the day he declared.

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“We get to be one of the three people on the stage every time now and people will judge us in a real way,” said Bill Hyers, O’Malley’s top strategist. “We just need to get in front of the voters and let them hear what he has to say."

The Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday night here will be one key chance for O’Malley to change the trajectory of his campaign with a breakout moment. He’ll speak to thousands of diehard Iowa Democratic activists at an event that has a track record of launching winning candidates like Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter.

Despite boasting a strong resume of liberal accomplishments and professional campaign team, the former two-term Maryland governor has struggled to gain traction and polled at roughly the same level as Webb and Chafee.

That often meant O’Malley was often relegated to second-tier status with two candidates who were barely campaigning, had raised almost no money, and who both served as Republicans in public office.

The giant electronic billboard outside the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas last week portrayed a face-off between Clinton and Sanders -- with O’Malley, Webb, and Chafee as faceless afterthoughts.

Now, aides to the former governor are hoping a narrower field will put O’Malley on the same plane as his stronger challengers and give him a chance to get his message out without the distraction of a wider field. 

“This week, as I saw my fellow presidential candidates Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee drop out, I knew we were entering a new phase of this race,” O’Malley wrote in an email to supporters. “With just three candidates left, and a big endorsement today, now is our time to step up.

Still, O’Malley had two major chances to “step up” in October, and he missed the first one. The former governor found no major standout moment during last week’s debate and enjoyed no bump in the polls. Still, his campaign called the debate as a “kick off” of sorts as they head into a fall packed with more debates and candidate forums. 

And he heads to Iowa with what his team is billing as momentum. He appeared on "The Daily Show" with new host Trevor Noah, and created buzz by whipping out his guitar and a singing a few bars of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” with the ladies on “The View.”

On Friday, he picked a major endorsement from former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was last year considering his own presidential bid in 2016. “Martin and I worked closely together as Democratic governors, and I saw firsthand how he didn’t just talk about his progressive values—he actually put them into action,” Schweitzer said in a statement, emphasizing a major theme of O’Malley’s stump speeches.

O’Malley’s campaign also recently announced a string of endorsements in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, including Vince Shaheen, a member of the South Carolina state Senate who as the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2010 and 2014. 

Iowa Democrats say O’Malley’s is appealing to the limited number of voters who are familiar with him, but that he could need a major moment to get attention. 

“I haven’t talked to a single person whose seen him who didn’t like him,” said Tom Henderson, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Polk County, which includes Des Moines. “This is a great chance for him to talk to a lot of the activist who maybe haven’t seen him before.” 

Many of the Democrats inside the hall at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner will have already decided whom they are supporting. And he hasn’t been able to take advantage of other stages like this.

But O’Malley will especially feel the benefits of the smaller field at the party’s next debate on November 14, when he won’t have to compete for time or attention with two other candidates.

And Hyers said the campaign has budgeted appropriately to stick it out for the long haul, after Republicans like Rick Perry and Scott Walker were forced to drop out after growing their staffs too big too fast.