With the official launch of Clinton's presidential campaign set for Sunday, O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, and Webb, the former senator from Virginia, used their appearance before Polk County Democrats to tout their own underdog candidacies. And they highlighted what could be Clinton's biggest intraparty weaknesses, calling for a smarter, less interventionist foreign policy, more equitable economic policy, taking on Wall Street, and supporting labor unions..
Webb said that despite the economic upswing the Obama administration has touted, Democrats needed to be honest that much of the recovery's benefits have gone to the nation's wealthiest individuals.
"If you own stocks, if you've got capital assets, you're probably doing pretty well," Webb said, noting the stock market has almost tripled since April 2009. "Working people's wages have gone down since 2009."
O'Malley also spoke about upward mobility, saying that many people are earning less than in the past. He also spoke in support taking on the culture that contributed to the financial crisis.
"It is not too much to ask and it is not too much to expect for our government to rein in Wall Street, to protect big banks from working over little people and to keep big banks from ever wrecking our national economy again," O'Malley said.
The focus on income inequality and high Wall Street earnings could be seen as a jab at Clinton. Progressives have accused both her and former President Bill Clinton of being too close to the financial industry. Hillary Clinton has made paid speaking engagements at Goldman Sachs, and the Clinton foundation has taken huge donations from the financial sector.
Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy, also highlighted his criticism of the Iraq War, noting he had written an op-ed in The Washington Post criticizing the war before it began. Clinton, by contrast, voted in favor of authorizing the Iraq War while in the Senate and was dogged by her initial support during her 2008 primary campaign against then-Sen. Barack Obama.
"It was not easy to say early that this was going to be a strategic error," Webb said.
Webb's remarks about making politically difficult decisions fit into both his and O'Malley's larger points about not always choosing the politically popular avenue.
"This kind of leadership requires the willingness to take a risk," Webb said. "To take the hits, to stand up for what you believe, not from a poll that helps you shape an issue politically or works towards that magic 270 number."
O'Malley made similar arguments, saying that "triangulation is not a strategy that will move America forward," not-so-subtly referencing the strategy employed by Bill Clinton, who cut deals with Republicans on welfare reform and balancing the budget that angered his fellow Demorats.
By making full-throated populist arguments for expanding Social Security and making college more affordable, O'Malley and Webb—neither of whom has officially declared his candidacy—can try to fill the void left by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has declined to run for president, but whom some progressives have said they want Democratic candidates to emulate.
Fridat's event was hosted by the United Auto Workers, with both quick to mention their support for labor unions as O'Malley spoke about supporting collective bargaining rights and Webb highlighting his union membership.
"I think it can safely be said that I was the only person ever elected to statewide office in Virginia with a union card, two Purple Hearts, and three tattoos," Webb said, "one of which I don't want to talk about."
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Eric Garcia is a staff correspondent for National Journal. He previously was a transparency reporter for MarketWatch, where he reported on financial regulation issues. His work has also appeared in the Southern Political Report, Salon, the American Prospect and the New Republic. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and covered politics for its campus paper, the Daily Tar Heel.