Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley debate on CBS Nov. 14. (Screen capture)
If Martin OMalley wasnt a participant in the current presidential election cycle, Hillary Clinton would have to find a replacement figure to fill his essential role.
The same goes for Bernie Sanders.
He and OMalley are perfect foils for Clinton as they seek to impress Democratic voters.
Clinton badly needs the publicity that flows from a contested set of presidential primaries.
Think what it would be like if Sanders and OMalley werent there: All the political talk from coast to coast would be about the Republican bloodbath among more than a dozen contenders. Clinton would be without primary foes and without key TV debate coverage.
So in spite of the critical words flowing between the ex-Maryland governor and the former secretary of state, Hillarys unspoken message to OMalley is: Thank you, thank you.
OMalleys continuing presidential role is enormously helpful for the clear Democratic frontrunner. Sure, hes only polling 3 percent nationally, 5 percent in New Hampshire, 3 percent in Iowa and 1 percent in South Carolina.
Lets face it: Hes doing poorly. Hes not impressing many people. Hes not judged to be presidential timber.
But his very presence is enough to put a glow on Hillary Clintons face.
The candidacies of Sanders and OMalley give the illusion of a serious contested primary election when in fact it looks more and more like a runaway verging on a coronation.
That last description coronation is the one Hillary Clinton wants to avoid. She needs to give the appearance of earning the right to represent Democrats rather than gaining it by virtue of her husbands presidency and the Clinton name.
U.S. voters get a bit unhinged by the notion of an American royal class. Crowning a second Clinton without a true primary contest strikes many as too regal.
Republicans would heap scorn on her if Hillary didnt have Bernie and Martin trying to nip at her heels. The GOP would skewer her for believing in the divine right of Clintons.
The debate game
OMalley and Sanders are most useful on the debate stage.
Their last debate performance was heavy on substance, unlike the Republican shouting and insult matches. Sanders and OMalley scored a few points, though they failed to damage the Clinton juggernaut.
Exposing weaknesses in Clintons answers now rather than later is a major benefit for Hillary. Thanks to Sanders and OMalleys persistent critiques during the debates, Clinton will be fully seasoned and prepared for the all-important general election debates next fall.
OMalley and Sanders are serving as batting practice pitchers for Clinton and occasionally turning the televised debates into spring training contests. These preliminaries prep Hillary for the World Series of debates against the GOPs nominee 10 or 11 months from now.
So while OMalley remains a stunning 57 percentage points behind Clinton nationally, some 40 points behind both Clinton and Sanders in New Hampshire, 52 points behind Clinton and 34 points behind Sanders in Iowa and a staggering 69 percentage points behind Clinton in South Carolina, his continuing role as a supporting character in the Democratic drama remains critical.
Wind beneath his wings
Dont expect Clinton operatives to pressure OMalley to drop out any time soon. Hes too useful to the Democratic frontrunner. They want to keep enough wind under OMalleys creaky biplane so he can remain aloft as a presidential candidate through the early primaries and into the spring.
Americans love competitive races. Even the fiction of a real contest seems to draw voters to the Democratic debates and keeps Hillary Clinton in the headlines almost as frequently as the Republican loudmouths.
Its useful to keep in mind that most public performers need a second banana. Jerry Lewis was at his most hilarious when teamed with Dean Martin. Penn wont go on stage without Teller. Groucho needed Chico and Harpo Marx to create entertainment magic.
So think of Martin OMalley as the Harpo Marx of the Democratic primaries while Bernie Sanders fills the role of the more serious Chico. Either way, theyre not the star of the show. They do, though, make the star a success.
Barry Rascovars blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.