O'Malley emerges in New Hampshire as potential Clinton rival for 2016 but soft sells potential challenge

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Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is emerging as a potential challenger to Hillary Clinton for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination but appears unwilling, at least for now, to mount a head-on challenge to the front-running Clinton.

O’Malley on Friday night at a Democratic fundraiser in key voting state New Hampshire declined to discuss two Clinton controversies -- donations to the Clinton Foundation and her use of a private email accounts -- much less use them to his political advantage.

“I like Hillary Clinton. I respect Secretary Clinton. I am not here to talk about Secretary Clinton," O’Malley said when asked after his speech about the foundation accepting large donations from foreign countries in the two years since Clinton left her post as secretary of state.

Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have long been supportive of O’Malley, who reportedly got Hillary Clinton’s blessing to run for the White House as far back as 2013.

O’Malley’s speech Friday at the Merrimack County Democrats fundraiser in Concord, N.H., marks his first visit to the state since the midterm elections. He last visited New Hampshire in October to campaign on behalf of Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who won re-election.

Clinton, also a former New York senator, has been the presumptive Democratic 2016 presidential nominee since polling started as far back as 2012, though she has yet to announce whether she is running.

With roughly 44 percent of the potential vote, formidable fundraising might and campaign infrastructure, Clinton has essentially cleared the field of potential primary challengers.

The 67-year-old Clinton has so far in speeches largely focused on wage equality for women and helping the middle and lower classes by increasing pay overall.

When O’Malley was asked Friday night how he would distinguish himself from Clinton, he said, “I don’t know. … I don't know what she's proposing as her candidacy.”

On the issue of Clinton using at least one private email account when secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, O’Malley, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said he wasn’t familiar enough with federal regulations to comment.

But he said that all personal emails for Maryland officials are subject to federal Freedom of Information Act requests.

He also said that openness and transparency is the way of the future and that cities and states have embraced this more than the federal government.

Republicans have sought to take advantage of the back-to-back Clinton controversies, with House Republicans saying they will subpoena the roughly 50,000 pages of emails in question.

And political observers say the controversies could create enough space for another Democrat to mount a strong challenge to Clinton.

On Friday, O'Malley did criticize President Obama and attempted to distinguish himself from the party’s torch-bearer.

He criticized the president for not using executive action to raise the federal overtime pay threshold and said reforming federal laws on immigration is necessary for a thriving economy and national security.

People living “in the shadows of society" create an "underground economy," O’Malley said.

Fox News’ Hillary Vaughn contributed to this story.