He went west to the heartland in 1983 with a guitar and a penny whistle, a political troubadour who was 20 but looked more like 15. And when he arrived, they gave him a phone, a map and a list of names, and said, "Go win part of Iowa for our presidential campaign."
So he dialed numbers and knocked on doors, visiting farmers and store clerks and men in suits. He talked to them, sang to them and generally charmed their socks off, and pretty soon reports began filtering back to the boss about this young guy from Maryland, Martin O'Malley.
"We heard that they just loved him out there," said Gary Hart, who was making his first run at the presidency. "Particularly the housewives. They all wanted to feed him and take care of him. He was like an orphan. And when I got out there, I discovered that sometimes they'd had to feed him because we'd run out of money."
In gratitude, Hart bought O'Malley his first legal beer on his 21st birthday -- a Guinness, of course. By then it was January 1984, and the campaign soldiered on for five months before Hart finished second to Walter F. Mondale for the Democratic nomination.
But its impact on O'Malley endured, and when he returned home to Rockville that July, younger brother Patrick saw the change right away. Martin had grown up.Political veterans, always on the lookout for up-and-comers, saw something, too.
"The Hart campaign was kind of a crucible for a lot of people who have since gone into public service," said deputy campaign manager Doug Wilson, 49.
"They came because they believed in something, and Martin was elite among them. This kid galvanized people. You could see the fire in his eyes."
If O'Malley, 36, is elected mayor of Baltimore next month, his administration will be indelibly marked by the lessons and friendships he gained from the Hart campaign.
Not only was it his political rite of passage, but it was where the major threads of his upbringing came together -- the energy, the loyalty and the relish for the spotlight; the ability to scan a precinct map and sniff out every last vote; and the belief, going back for generations in his Democratic family, that politics was not only noble but useful, a tool built more for shaping policies than for winning elections.
`The right way'
"Our parents always taught us that if it's done the right way, you can really do great things for the people and for the country," said O'Malley's brother Patrick, 32, an attorney at a Wall Street law firm.
Not all of O'Malley's skills win universal approval. The performer in him can come across as a grandstander. His quick wit can be intemperate. A confident stance on issues strikes opponents as cocksure.
And in an age in which a charismatic president's duplicity has cast a shadow of cynicism on the electorate, even being a charmer is a mixed blessing, inspiring some, repelling others.
"The whole [primary] campaign, he was under a complete microscope because they were trying to find some awful thing, and there just really wasn't anything," said Katie O'Malley, his wife. "Whether you agree with him or disagree with him on issues, he is what he is."
O'Malley's philosophy wasn't crafted from polling or market research. Just ask his mom and dad, Thomas and Barbara O'Malley. Or his five brothers and sisters. The lines he uses in interviews tend to be like the ones he grew up hearing around the dinner table, in a home where old campaign buttons, convention ribbons and photos of Democratic presidents have an honored place on the wall.
His mother's father was party chairman for Indiana's 4th Congressional District, in Fort Wayne, where he once sat on the dais with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His father's father was a ward boss in Pittsburgh. His parents met in 1954 when his father, a lawyer, was volunteering at the Democratic National Committee in Washington, where his mother was national secretary for the Young Democrats.
Two sisters were born before Martin arrived, and three brothers followed. It wasn't long before each was asked to hand out leaflets door-to-door in someone's election campaign. Martin remembers heading out at age 7 with his father to work for family friend James Gleason, a Republican who became Montgomery County executive. In later years, brother Patrick came along.