(CNN) – Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is heading to South Carolina later this month, a move that will likely fuel further speculation that the Democratic governor is considering a White House bid in 2016.
He'll headline a conference for the South Carolina Democratic Party on March 23.
The Palmetto State is known for holding the first-in-the-South primary during presidential election years, making it a must-stop state for White House hopefuls.
O'Malley's name has been floating as a potential candidate since last year, when he became a top surrogate for President Barack Obama's re-election bid. Like many possible contenders, O'Malley has played coy in answering questions about his interest in the White House.
First elected in 2006, the governor's second term ends in January 2015, an opportune time to jump-start a presidential bid. Before becoming governor, O'Malley served as Baltimore mayor from 1999 to 2006.
He's pursued a series of popular items on the Democratic agenda, including tougher gun laws and same-sex marriage rights, the latter of which passed last year. He also served as the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association during the last cycle and now serves as the finance chairman, a spot that will keep in touch with key Democratic donors.
He's also in close contact with Obama. The president tapped O'Malley last month to be one of two co-chairmen on a panel of officials focused on defense and homeland security. He'll serve with Republican Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa.
And the president gave O'Malley a shout-out when Obama had the nation's governors at the White House in late February. The president praised O'Malley for putting "his state on track to all but eliminate his deficit while keeping tuition down and making Maryland's public schools among the best in America five years running."
Maryland voters, however, may not think so highly of their governor. A poll conducted in late February shows the governor's approval ratings are on the decline. Forty-nine percent of voters approved of the job he's doing, down from 57% in 2010, according to the Washington Post survey.
As for 2016, the poll shows former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the overwhelming favorite in O'Malley's state, with 56% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents saying they would support her if she decides to run. Meanwhile, 18% back Vice President Joe Biden, 8% support O'Malley and 4% choose New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
South Carolina won't be the first early state O'Malley has stepped foot in during the last year. In September, the Maryland governor made headlines when he keynoted Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry in September as he campaigned for Obama. The move again prompted questions about 2016, which he carefully dodged by saying his focus was getting the president re-elected.
The buzz surrounding O'Malley's upcoming stop in South Carolina is just one more sign that the 2016 race is gearing up. Speculation also simmered on the Republican front when Sen. Marco Rubio headlined a fundraiser in Iowa for Gov. Branstad in November. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, another potential 2016 candidate, will keynote an event in Iowa in April.
- CNN's Paul Steinhauser and Peter Hamby contributed to this report.