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Forget 2016 — the 2020 Election Just Kicked Off

Sen. Tom Cotton: Trump Can 'Make the Case for Himself' 2:15

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, thinks that 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.

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 Reponse

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.