COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (AP) — Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton declared Americans "ready for that new beginning" in Iowa Friday, walking a delicate path by raising his national political profile at a time of turmoil for Donald Trump's White House.
The 40-year-old freshman Republican senator sounded national themes as the guest at the Pottawattamie County Republican Party's annual fundraiser in Council Bluffs in conservative western Iowa. It was a role thick with presidential implications despite Trump's solid standing among Iowa Republicans less than four months into his term.
"I'm ready for that new beginning," Cotton added, in closing his 20-minute speech to more than 100 Iowa GOP loyalists and prompting a standing ovation.
However, Cotton offered a simple "no" when asked if he was laying the groundwork for a 2020 presidential campaign, or hedging his bets should the Republican Trump not seek re-election.
"I'm up for re-election in Arkansas" in 2020, Cotton told The Associated Press before the fundraising dinner at an event center.
Cotton's hosts were standing by the president, and calling their guest's appearance an opportunity for Republican activists to meet a potential future leader. But the event had all the trappings of an early White House exploration.
Despite his unambiguous "no," Cotton offered a broad message, as would-be White House prospects often do in Iowa. The veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggested the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a unifying point for a new generation of Americans.
"I've spent most of my days since 9/11 trying to stop another day like that from happening," he told the fundraising crowd. "But I also want to revive the spirt of the days following."
On matters swirling around Trump, Cotton, also tread carefully.
Having previously said a special counsel was unnecessary, he declined Friday to endorse Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's appointment of former FBI Director Bob Mueller to investigate any collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government's interference in the campaign.
"I can't evaluate whether it's a good decision or not, the right decision or not. I don't have all the facts, all the reasoning the deputy attorney general had," he told the AP, while praising Mueller as widely respected.
Former FBI Director James Comey is expected to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which Cotton sits. Cotton said he hoped to learn what exchanges Comey had with Trump before the president abruptly fired him last week and to see the memos Comey is alleged to have kept.
Pottawattamie County Republican Chairman Jeff Jorgensen said he expects to invite Cotton back to western Iowa.
"He was a big hit. He has an open invitation to come back anytime," Jorgensen said after the dinner. "I'm going to get a lot of requests to have him back."
Trump, who departed Friday for the first overseas trip of his presidency, would seem to have few worries within the party base in Iowa, at the moment.
The GOP base overwhelmingly supports him, said Iowa Republican strategist Doug Gross, a former nominee for governor. That's despite low national approval and the shroud of congressional committees — and now a special counsel — investigating whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election.
Only if Trump is impeached or the economy turns sour will Trump not be re-nominated, said Gross, who has been a Trump critic. Still, Cotton has begun making friends in Iowa, a move that could pay future dividends — or backfire.
"I think a guy like Tom Cotton could actually hurt himself by coming out too early like this," Gross said.
Cotton has made inroads with Iowa Republicans. Early this month, he spoke to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce's conference in Washington.
"He's clearly someone who has a rising national profile," said Joe Murphy of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, one of about 200 who saw Cotton's speech. "He's extremely well versed in many different issues."
Besides being a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Trump's campaign and Russia, Cotton is part of the Senate Republican working group charged with writing health care legislation, now that the GOP-controlled House has passed legislation undoing broad portions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.