MINNEAPOLIS – Martin O’Malley had one clear chance to make waves within the Democratic National Committee, and he seized it, delivering a fiery speech Friday that condemned his party’s leadership for what he called a process “rigged” to help Hillary Rodham Clinton — namely, curtailing the number of presidential primary debates.
Accusing party leaders of trying to keep Democratic ideas hidden as the Republican presidential candidates spew “racist hate” from their debate lecterns, Mr. O’Malley, the former Maryland governor and mayor of Baltimore, questioned the decision to hold “four debates and four debates only” before the first four states finish voting.
“This is totally unprecedented in our party’s history,” Mr. O’Malley said. “This sort of rigged process has never been attempted before. Whose decree is it exactly? Where did it come from? To what end? For what purpose? What national or party interest does this decree serve? How does this help us tell the story of the last eight years of Democratic progress?”
While Mr. O’Malley never named the party’s chairwoman, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, his remarks about the debates were clearly aimed at her – and she sat looking grim throughout, barely clapping, and appeared angry when she shook his hand once he finished.
He did not name Mrs. Clinton in his speech, either, but Mr. O’Malley was asked afterward if he thought the debate schedule had been arranged for her benefit. “Yes, I think so. Don’t you?” he replied.
While Mr. O’Malley has been deeply critical of the party for weeks over the debate schedule, this was a frontal attack on the party’s leadership from its own stage. Without endorsements or many major donors, Mr. O’Malley has little to lose.
But he was giving voice to a complaint that a growing number of party committee members have been making privately. Those members, mindful that Mrs. Clinton’s standing in some polls has sagged lately, have been concerned about a process that could ultimately do the party a disservice.
But delivering such a raw speech startled Democrats at the party’s summer meeting, although it was met with cheers from the crowd.
Mr. O’Malley, a lifelong Democrat and onetime chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, seemed comfortable playing the insurgent as he took the stage.
He urged Democrats to draw a sharp contrast with the discourse among the Republican presidential candidates. “Silence and complacency in the face of hate is not an honorable option,” he said, alluding to Donald J. Trump’s divisive remarks about immigration and women. “We must stand before the American people and show them we have a better way.”
Mr. O’Malley pointed out that the New Hampshire debate, the only one to be held before that state’s primary, was set for a weekend in December, when many people will be distracted with Christmas shopping and family obligations. (“At home we would call that too cute by half,” he told reporters after his speech.)
Later, he acknowledged that he was not the only liberal candidate in the race, but trumpeted his accomplishments in Maryland, including signing a law extending in-state tuition rates to college students who are in the country illegally.
At the moment, Mr. O’Malley is polling in the low single digits in almost every public survey, and he has been fighting to gain traction as Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, has drawn a huge following.
But Mr. O’Malley’s bold showing Friday seemed an attempt to remind party members attending the meeting that, if Mr. Sanders falters, Mr. O’Malley could be a credible alternative to Mrs. Clinton.