A possible Democratic candidate for president in 2016 criticized Gov. Nikki Haley and other “tea party Republicans” for their “ideology of less” at a gathering of South Carolina Democrats in Charleston Saturday.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley underscored the need for South Carolinians to help their state and the nation by unseating Haley next year and by electing Democratic candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch to the 1st Congressional District seat in May.

Tim Pearson, a chief adviser to Haley, was quick to respond, questioning whether South Carolina voters share O’Malley’s ideology. “I’m doubtful they do,” Pearson said.

O’Malley was the keynote speaker at the South Carolina Democratic Party’s second annual Issues Conference, held at West Ashley High School.

“In these challenging times, there’s a clear contrast between leadership that actually works and ideology that doesn’t,” O’Malley said, emphasizing that the proof of good government is in the results.

“Now, some of these new tea party Republican governors are funny in this regard, aren’t they? They run on a platform claiming government isn’t working. Then when they’re in office, their own failure to do the job proves their point.

“Your current governor — bless her heart — is a case in point. Creating jobs at Georgia’s Port of Savannah instead of creating jobs at South Carolina’s Port of Charleston, failing to take basic cyber security precautions to protect 3.6 million Social Security numbers, then waiting nearly two weeks to tell hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians that their credit card data had been hacked and stolen.

“How’s all that working for South Carolina?”

O’Malley then noted that South Carolina’s 8.7 percent unemployment rate is one of nation’s highest, that the Palmetto State graduates a lower percentage of high school students than 47 other states, and that the state has the highest tuition and lowest state support for public colleges in the South.

“If this works for you and your family, if you think college is something that only rich families should be able to afford, perhaps you want to stick with Governor Haley. If you believe that every hard working kid in South Carolina deserves a fair shot at the opportunity to go to college, you want to work hard to elect a new governor like (S.C. Sen.) Vincent Sheheen.”

Pearson gave a brief response to O’Malley’s comments.

“Martin O’Malley is, predictably, juking the stats — unemployment has gone down in South Carolina since Nikki Haley took office, and gone up in Maryland since O’Malley took office,” Pearson said.

“If (O’Malley) wants to be honest with South Carolinians, we’re happy he’s here. If not, he should go back to Maryland where he quite successfully legalized gambling, gay marriage, the end of the death penalty, and hiked taxes on everyone and everything he could think of.

“If the people of South Carolina want those same values, they should get behind Vince Sheheen and Martin O’Malley. I’m doubtful they do,” said Pearson.

While O’Malley was trumpeting Sheheen, the state senator from Camden, who lost a bid for governor against Haley in 2010, has not yet committed to running again, but said he will be considering it in the months ahead.

On Saturday, Sheheen joined Rep. Leon Stavrinakis at the conference in a panel discussion on education and introduced his 110-page book, “The Right Way: Getting the Palmetto State Back on Track,” that offers a plan for improving the state. The book is free and available on Sheheen’s website.

“The book is not about me. It’s about South Carolina. I call it a platform for policy and a revolt against the status quo because we need to change South Carolina. I drafted it to talk about substantive issues in a way that’s not partisan,” Sheheen said.

“The Right Way,” he said, focuses on four key issues — public education, economic development and job growth, transportation, and restructuring and reforming state government.

“If economic development and lower unemployment rates are priorities, which they should be, then public education also has to be a priority. The states who succeed economically have good, thriving public education systems,” said Sheheen, whose mother is a retired teacher and principal.

While O’Malley’s speech was the highlight of the day, state Democrats immersed themselves in several issues Saturday, with other panel discussions on health care and Medicaid, unions, the voter identification law, rural issues, the environment and clean energy, women and young people in politics, social media, and fundraising and budgeting.

The organizer of the conference, S.C. Democratic Party First Vice Chairman Jaime Harrison, underscored the importance of Democrats in the state to start gearing up for a big year, and said O’Malley was just the man to set the fire.

“Again my friends, 2014 is an important year for us because our governorship is up,” said Harrison, in his introduction of O’Malley. “If we’re going to kick off the campaign to get rid of Nikki Haley and to do what we need to do in this state to protect to our voters, to protect the people that we love, then this is the man (O’Malley) I want to kick it off.”