Forget 2016 -- the 2020 election just kicked off

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Sen. Tom Cotton: Trump Can 'Make the Case for Himself'

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Before voters have even cast their ballots in the 2016 election, some conservatives are quietly eyeing 2020 White House bids.

Sen. Tom Cotton is one of them. The Arkansas Republican addressed the Iowa delegation on Tuesday morning in the basement of a local brewery, trashing Democrats and highlighting Republican gains in recent years. It's his second of three planned meetings with early-voting state delegates, as the rising 39-year-old conservative star makes inroads with party insiders in the first voting state in the nation, ahead of a White House bid that could come soon.

If you squint just a bit, it looks an awful lot like 2020 just kicked off.

Related: Rising GOP Stars Keeping Distance from Trump Policies

"My dad just last year applied for and got a concealed carry permit for the first time in his life. He said someone has to protect us if ISIS comes here to cut our heads off," Cotton told the group. "Think about that, seventy year old man, living on a farm in rural Arkansas, not that different from any of you, think that's he has to carry a gun not to protect himself against street crime, but against terrorism. That's the reaches of Barack Obama's failed foreign policy."

It's an awkward dance: Cotton is here in Cleveland ostensibly to rally behind his party's nominee, Donald Trump, who, if things go Republicans' way, may be up for reelection in 2020. But it's an uphill march for Trump: Party unity is faltering, chaotically; a group of delegates attempted to defeat Trump in a floor fight leading Colorado's delegation to storm off the convention floor Monday; and Trump's campaign manager trashed the convention host state's popular Republican governor, John Kasich.

PHOTOS: Senator Tom Cotton

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HOT SPRINGS, AR - APRIL 26: U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton looks for questions in a crowd of supporters at a Republican headquarters office April 26, 2014 in Hot Springs, Ark. Sen. Pryor is in a tight reelection campaign with Republican opponent , U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton. (Photo by Stephen B. Thornton for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 31: Rep. Tom Cotton, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., speaks during a campaign rally in Mountain View, Ark., on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 30: Rep. Tom Cotton, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., speaks with Conner Cadle, age 6, of Weiner, Ark., at the Jonesboro Victory Office before helping phone bank to get out the vote on Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 in Jonesboro, Ark. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 31: Rep. Tom Cotton, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., poses for photos after speaking at a campaign rally in Mountain View, Ark., on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 31: Rep. Tom Cotton, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., poses for photos after speaking at a campaign rally in Mountain View, Ark., on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) Senator-Elect, appears on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday Nov. 30, 2014. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 6: Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., his wife Anna and Vice President Joe Biden participate in the re-enactment swearing-in ceremony in the Old Senate Chamber on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC MARCH 11: Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) is photographed in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Cotton drafted the letter to Iran signed by GOP Senators. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 13: Freshman GOP Senators pose for a group photo with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., in front of the Ohio Clock in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. From left are Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., David Perdue, R-Ga., Michael Rounds, R-S.D., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Steve Daines, R-Mont., Ben Sasse, R-Neb., Dan Sullivan, R-AK, Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Bill Cassidy, R-La., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and James Lankford, R-Okla. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
KIEV, UKRAINE - JUNE 20: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (L) speaks during a joint press conference with U.S. Senators John Barrasso (R) and John McCain (not seen) in Kiev, Ukraine, on June 20, 2015. (Photo by Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. The Republican Party opened its national convention Monday, kicking off a four-day political jamboree that will anoint billionaire Donald Trump as its presidential nominee. Some 2,000 delegates descended on a tightly secured Cleveland arena where Trump's wife will take center stage later in the day to make a personal pitch to voters that her billionaire husband is the best candidate for the White House. / AFP / ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, right, stands inside the Quicken Loans Arena 'The Q' ahead of the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Sunday, July 17, 2016. A key Republican National Convention committee crushed a long-shot attempt by rogue delegates to block Donald Trump's nomination, as internal strife that's roiled the party for much of the past decade was on full display Thursday amid fights over governing rules for the next four years. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 1: Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., participates in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's media availability in the U.S. Capitol with Republican members of the Senate Veterans' Affairs and Armed Services Committees to discuss cloture vote on the Milcon/VA appropriations bill cloture vote and next week's National Defense Authorization Act Conference Report on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, waves before speaking during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Monday, July 18, 2016. Republican factions trying to stop Donald Trump's nomination noisily disrupted a vote on party convention rules, displaying the fissures in the party on the first day of its national convention. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, speaks during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Monday, July 18, 2016. Republican factions trying to stop Donald Trump's nomination noisily disrupted a vote on party convention rules, displaying the fissures in the party on the first day of its national convention. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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It's amid this fraught environment that a handful of other prominent Republicans are forging bonds with the party activists serving as delegates this year: Iowa's junior senator, Joni Ernst, also addressed her home-state delegation, as well as New Hampshire's delegation early Tuesday morning.

Related: Sen. Joni Ernst Criticizes Clinton on Terrorism Response

Cotton met with South Carolina delegates on Monday, addressed the convention on Monday night, and is scheduled to appear at an event with the New Hampshire delegation Wednesday. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped out early from the 2016 field but could run again, will make the same rounds, Politico reported.

"I appreciate the opportunity to one day work with you one day — in higher office," former New Hampshire Rep. Mike Rogers pointedly told Ernst during his remarks at the breakfast. She smiled and laughed it off. Earlier, she'd downplayed her appearance at the breakfast saying she was simply stepping in for a friend, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who's in a tight reelection battle and has dodged this year's convention to keep campaigning — and distance herself from the controversial party nominee.

Still, with the 2016 ballots not yet printed, it felt too soon for some.

"Yeah, it's a little early," Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufman told NBC News, but acknowledged he wasn't surprised. "We take our job seriously. The first thing I said to Sen. Cotton was hi, we welcome you, as long as you support our first in the nation status."

With Iowa, it's never too early to work on being first.

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