DES MOINES, Iowa — The Hillary Rodham Clinton juggernaut is coming to Iowa. Martin O'Malley already has beaten her to the early-voting state.
The former Maryland governor was in a Des Moines tavern this past week, playing guitar and singing Irish folk tunes. He had a lunch with Democratic activists in the college town of Ames, and spent Friday night talking up his populist economic message with at a party banquet in the capital.
For months, O'Malley has largely had Iowa to himself as Clinton slow-played her entry into the race for 2016 presidential race.
O'Malley's Iowa advantage, if there was one at all, should be coming to an end Sunday when Clinton planned to make her much-anticipated announcement that she's running for the nomination for a second time. Clinton fell short in 2008 against Barack Obama.
A trip to Iowa is expected to follow soon afterward.
"I think the people of Iowa wake up every morning looking toward the future, and they believe inherently that we're served by new leadership," O'Malley said Friday night in Des Moines.
Technically, Clinton would be the first Democrat to enter the race. Others, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and former Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, are exploring whether to run.
O'Malley has done the most as a potential Clinton challenger. He has reached out to Iowa for the past three years, first meeting with the Iowa delegation at the Democratic National Convention in 2012 before speaking at then-Sen. Tom Harkin's annual picnic fundraiser that fall.
In his last Iowa appearance before Clinton's expected entry, O'Malley called for renewing the American dream on time-tested Democratic principles.
"To make the dream come true again, we must fight for better wages for all workers, so that Americans can support their families on what they earn," O'Malley said at a party dinner Friday night in Des Moines.
For the most part, he has steered clear of publicly criticizing Clinton. He has focused on the long, disciplined march of a serious candidate who knows he is an underdog.
O'Malley has visited Iowa six times since the start of last year. He put 14 staffers to work on Iowa campaigns during last year's election and has hired one for his potential campaign.
"The great thing about Iowa and New Hampshire is that people insist on meeting all of the candidates before they make a decision," O'Malley said.
That's not just O'Malley's line, either.
Even with Clinton in the race, many of the party loyalists who will brave a winter night in Iowa in February to choose a candidate at caucus sites say they want a contest, not a coronation.
"I'm going to see what they all have to say," said Geri Frederiksen of Council Bluffs. He waited three hours on Thursday to see a flight-delayed Webb at the western Iowa city's public library.
Both Frederiksen and her friend, Dolores Bristol, said they are worried that a perfunctory nominating contest might not stir enough enthusiasm among Iowa Democrats to power a victory for the eventually nominee in November 2016.
Iowa is expected to be among the most contested states in the general election.
"Clinton seems like she's the one. Do I have the fervor for her that I did for Obama? No," Bristol said. "But O'Malley is very charismatic, and more progressive, which a lot of Iowa Democrats like."
Surveys of voters this far ahead of the February caucuses have limited value, but Clinton did lead by more than 50 percentage points in a recent Iowa Poll. Both Webb and O'Malley were rated the first choice of 3 percent and 1 percent of voters, respectively, in a poll with a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.
But Clinton had a big lead in 2007, too, before she was upset by then-Illinois Sen. Obama in the 2008 caucuses.
O'Malley is keeping up a schedule of meetings with state lawmakers, lunches with activists and city officials and speeches at fundraisers such as the one he headlined Thursday at a winery in the scenic hills south of Des Moines.
About 50 people heard O'Malley promote his Maryland record and preview of his likely 2016 message: executive experience, combined with progressive economic policies such as raising the minimum wage, taxing the wealthy and regulating banks.
"We do it by asking the wealthiest among us to actually believe enough in their country to make the sort of investments we made in other generations, instead of offshoring their profits and offshoring their wealth," O'Malley said.
So far, Webb has not spent as much time in Iowa as O'Malley. That might be why, after delivering a talk that focused on social justice and a bipartisan foreign policy on Thursday to an audience of only a dozen or so, he got asked directly if he has any kind of shot against Clinton.
"Are you a viable candidate?" said Democrat Jamie Lakers, who drove two hours from Des Moines to see Webb at the library in Council Bluffs. "Because from the news media, Hillary Clinton's already been elected."
Webb wondered aloud if he was.
"Can we do this? We will make that decision in fairly short order," he said. "I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't think I had a shot."