INDIANOLA, Iowa (AP) -- Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a 2016 presidential prospect, began forging an early -- and therefore tricky -- path into presidential proving ground Iowa on Sunday.
Appearing at Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry, O'Malley dismissed the awkwardness that comes with trying to make a good first impression on Democratic activists in the leadoff caucus state, even as fewer than 60 days remained in Democratic President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
"That's not what I'm doing here. I'm here because my friend Sen. Harkin asked me to come," the Democrat told reporters before speaking to hundreds of Iowa Democratic activists.
O'Malley was the keynote speaker at the Iowa Democrat's annual fundraiser, owning an important and well-worn national stage for White House aspirants while also rallying support for Obama's re-election in swing state Iowa.
"Let us return to the urgent work of creating more jobs, more security, more opportunity and a better future for our children," O'Malley said in closing his 20-minute speech to several hundred Democrats at a county fairgrounds south of Des Moines. "And let us together, Iowa, move forward and not back by re-electing Barack Obama president of the United States."
Vice President Joe Biden will be in Burlington, in the southeastern part of Iowa, to make that same argument Monday. Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan will offer a rebuttal Monday in the state capital, Des Moines.
Jim and Kathy Young, Democrats from Solon in eastern Iowa, said O'Malley sounded like a presidential candidate.
"He sounds like a rising star," said Kathy Young. "I think we'll be hearing from him again."
O'Malley, who is chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said he was in Iowa to "help the people of Iowa elect a new Democratic governor in 2014." Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has not yet said whether he plans to seek re-election in two years.
Yet, O'Malley also introduced himself to Iowa's Democratic faithful by telling his family story, including his father's World War II military service, and his policy profile, such as endorsing the referendum on the ballot in Maryland this November to legalize gay marriage.
O'Malley already had made some influential friends. Signs that read "Iowa AFSCME, Governor O'Malley" adorned the stage at the fairgrounds.
O'Malley is popular with AFSCME -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- in Maryland, Iowa Democratic officials said, and had reached out to Iowa's public employees union.
O'Malley formed a political action committee this year and last week hired a former Obama campaign aide to advise him.
He met with the Iowa delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last month. And Sunday he heaped praise on Harkin, a five-term senator and pillar among Iowa Democrats.
Other presidential prospects who have appeared at the Harkin event during its 35-year history include Obama in 2006 and John Edwards in 2005.
And while it's still more than four years until the 2016 election, O'Malley is not the first would-be presidential prospect to begin reaching out in Iowa before one election is over.
Republican Mitt Romney headlined an Iowa GOP dinner in October 2004, a month before George W. Bush was re-elected. Romney, now the GOP's presidential nominee, unsuccessfully sought the 2008 nomination.