Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O'Malley (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / April 3, 2014)

His final legislative session is over, but Gov. Martin O'Malley is unlikely to have a restful last nine months in office.

As he weighs whether to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, political observers and those who have faced the same situation say the remainder of this year will be an important test of the governor's ability to lift his profile in early-voting states and raise enough money to appear credible on the national stage.

But even as he looks beyond the state where he has served in elected office for 23 years, O'Malley will be repeatedly pulled back to the ground in Maryland — to help elect Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown as his replacement, for instance, and to fix the state's troubled health insurance exchange. Both officials have faced criticism over the exchange, which crashed on its first day and limped along with software problems for months.

In other words, O'Malley may have more to do than most officials finishing their terms in office. for O'Malley, the term "lame duck" may not apply.

"You want to make it clear to your constituents that you're still governor of Maryland, even though you're running for president," Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, said of the balancing act O'Malley will face in coming months.

"Your main interest is still in being governor," said Richardson, who had nearly three years remaining in his gubernatorial term when he announced his candidacy in mid-2007. "You have to show up once in a while."

Experts predict that O'Malley, whose term ends a full year before the Iowa caucus, will continue to do what he's been doing — traveling and fundraising — but on a more intense scale. Some of that effort may already be underway: The governor was set to speak at a party dinner in Wisconsin on Saturday, travel to Kentucky for Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes on Thursday and stump in Massachusetts in May.

Aides say O'Malley also expects to visit Michigan, Maine, Florida and Pennsylvania in the coming months.

And he has already engaged in the most important political fight of this year: control of the U.S. Senate. He's hosted fundraisers for vulnerable Democratic incumbents such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska.

"He seems to be doing it by the book," said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and arguably Washington's best-known political handicapper. "O'Malley is doing everything he needs to do — what someone should do in these circumstances."

O'Malley, who turned 51 this year, is flirting with a presidential race that is wildly unpredictable. The Democratic field will be heavily influenced by whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enters the race — a move that most feel would relegate everyone else, including O'Malley, to second-tier status.

The former first lady and New York senator acknowledged Tuesday that she's "thinking about" a run, two words that sparked a flurry of political coverage. A super PAC run by former aides raised nearly $4 million last year. And her latest book, focused on her time in President Barack Obama's Cabinet, is due to be published in June.

Clinton's shadow has limited the ability of others to raise cash, but O'Malley nevertheless collected $1.7 million for his own PAC in 2013.

For his part, the governor has remained coy about his future. In an interview during the waning days of the General Assembly session, he declined to say whether he will spend more time on a presidential campaign this year, whether he will enter the race if Clinton has already announced, whether he will make a decision before he leaves office or whether he has spoken with Clinton about 2016.

He has previously said he is "thinking" about a run. Asked whether he is also thinking about some other career path after his term ends in January, O'Malley demurred.

"I need to turn my attention to all of those things. I haven't done so yet," he said. "I have spent some time and some effort thinking about our country's direction and a better way forward after President Obama's term is over — and I'll continue to do that."

Political observers say O'Malley, if he's serious, will likely ramp up soon.

The governor has faced several recent controversies, including the health exchange woes and a scandal at the state-run Baltimore jail, which brought unwanted attention from the national media. He's also won a string of legislative victories — same-sex marriage, tighter gun controls and, most recently, an increase in the state's minimum wage.

Despite the high-profile successes and setbacks, O'Malley remains largely unknown outside Maryland.

A Suffolk University poll of likely Iowa caucus voters last week found 63 percent supported Clinton, more than Vice President Joe Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick combined. O'Malley's name didn't even appear in the poll.