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Regardless of his protestations to the contrary, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton sure looks like he's running for president.

The latest evidence that Arkansas' junior senator has eyes on the White House was yet another visit by Cotton to Iowa, where the nation's first presidential primaries are held.

He was asked directly if he was there to lay groundwork for a 2020 presidential campaign.

His answer? A straightforward "no."

Yet there he was in Council Bluffs a while back, speaking to 100 or so Iowan Republicans at a fundraising dinner. Republicans there touted this as an opportunity to meet a potential "future" leader, while reasserting Iowans' continued support for an embattled President Trump.

The real question for Cotton -- or any other would-be Republican presidential candidate -- is whether now is the right time to be courting support for a White House bid, even a "future" one.

Trump is president and still holds strong support from his base, despite ongoing inquiries into his campaign and the Russians and vast criticism of the way he has conducted himself in office.

Barring unknown developments, he will remain a likely candidate for re-election in 2020 unless he chooses not to run.

Cotton's answer to a question about his own 2020 plans is that he's up for re-election in Arkansas that year. He failed to mention a relatively recent change in Arkansas law that would actually allow him to seek re-election to the Senate and the presidency at the same time.

Cotton shouldn't be hinting at a challenge for the presidency, even if it might be in the back of his mind. These investigations into Trump and his campaign's possible involvement with Russia must play out before any Republican will even suggest Trump be replaced.

Conventional wisdom might put Vice President Mike Pence at the head of an alternative Republican field, but Cotton might want to take Pence on, if that opportunity arises.

Cotton has been known to move quickly when given the chance. The freshman senator secured the Senate seat in a 2014 election in which he advanced from a first term in the U.S. House. It was a rapid rise, involving defeat of the incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, the last Democrat to represent Arkansas in the Congress.

Cotton, who grew up on a family cattle farm in Yell County, is a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School and a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's the kind of resume that brought early national attention to the lanky Arkansan. He remains in the political spotlight, appearing frequently on national news programs and serving in a couple of high-profile roles in the Senate.

This week, he'll be among the U.S. senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee questioning James Comey, the former FBI director, about the investigation into Russian influence in U.S. elections last year.

Comey's testimony is, of course, what will matter most -- whatever he tells the Senate in this first open discussion about the investigation that resulted in his firing. But pay attention to how Cotton and other senators question Comey, where they put emphasis and what their choices say about the senators.

The televised hearings -- however brief the senator's time might be -- is a far greater opportunity to introduce Cotton to more Americans than a fundraising dinner in Council Bluffs, Iowa. That's especially true if his questions are piercing and get picked up and repeated over and again on the news reports that follow.

Cotton knows that and is smart enough to avail himself of the opportunity.

The other high-profile role Cotton has now is as one of the senators chosen by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to come up with a Senate version of a Republican health care bill to replace the federal Affordable Care Act, which many referred to as Obamacare.

Cotton has a chance to lead on an issue of huge importance not just to Republicans but to all Americans and, in particular, to his Arkansas constituents.

Cotton's most difficult moments as a senator may have come during in-state confrontations with constituents over the health care law. Like others in the Congress, Cotton has faced angry town hall audiences concerned about the potential loss of affordable health care coverage.

His comments in the time since those gatherings suggest he may have been affected at least a little by those constituent concerns.

Even though most of the attention these days is on Trump's White House, health care will come to the fore again.

So keep a close eye on how Cotton handles these dual challenges to help craft the Senate health care bill and to get to the bottom of the investigation into Trump's White House.

Commentary on 06/07/2017

Print Headline: Iowa: Land of Cotton?

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