2020 GOP hopefuls raise flags in Cleveland
© Greg Nash

South Carolina’s delegates to the Republican National Convention kicked off their week in Cleveland on Monday morning with a series of breakfast lectures on national security issues that featured a rising star within their party: Arkansas Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonCotton mocks NY Times over claim of nonpartisanship, promises to submit op-eds as test Barrett fight puts focus on abortion in 2020 election COVID outbreak threatens GOP's Supreme Court plans MORE


A retired U.S. Army officer who served in combat in Iraq, Cotton stuck to a foreign policy script, accusing the Obama administration of making the nation less secure over the past seven years and cheering on Republican policies.

But few in the room missed what went unspoken: that Cotton might have future designs on the presidency and that his visit with the politically important South Carolina delegation was no accident.

“I think everybody knows there may be something in their future,” Katrina Shealy, a South Carolina state senator and delegate, told The Hill. “Whoever’s going to run for president wants to come see South Carolina, because we’ve always played an important part in that. They do pitch South Carolina.”

Across town, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker joined Iowa delegates for breakfast, where he excoriated presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGorsuch rejects Minnesota Republican's request to delay House race Biden leads Trump by 6 points in Nevada: poll The Memo: Women could cost Trump reelection MORE for her handling of the private email server she used while secretary of State. Walker ran an ill-fated campaign for president in 2016, and he is said to still harbor ambitions for the office.

“I think Iowans appreciate the opportunity to get to know emerging national leaders in a way other states don’t,” said Matt Strawn, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman attending the convention. “It wouldn’t be surprising to know that most of them view this as an opportunity to start a relationship.”

Cotton and Walker are among the handful of rising Republican stars using their party’s gathering in Cleveland to introduce themselves more broadly to activists and donors. At the very least, those introductions can boost a candidate’s political profile. At most, they serve as important first impressions that could pay dividends if those rising stars decide to mount future national campaigns.

Breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions are “the fastest way to meet a broad cross section of opinion-makers,” said one adviser to a senator making the rounds this week.

That means taking every opportunity to reach out and introduce oneself in Cleveland — because future rivals are doing the same thing.

“You get highly courted in South Carolina, especially if you’re an elected official,” Shealy said. “Everybody wants you on their team.”

Delegations from states that hold presidential nominating contests early in the political calendar will be lavished with special attention from their party’s future leaders.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst welcomed her home-state delegates to Cleveland on Sunday with a barbecue reception; Ernst will follow her Monday night address to the convention by attending a breakfast meeting with New Hampshire Republicans on Tuesday morning.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose two presidential bids focused heavily on social conservatives in Iowa, will meet the state’s delegates this week, too. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIn partisan slugfest, can Chip Roy overcome Trump troubles? Cruz: Hunter Biden attacks don't move 'a single voter' GOP clears key hurdle on Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, setting up Monday confirmation MORE, the Texas Republican who won the Iowa caucuses this year, is holding an event billed as a thank you to his own delegates on Wednesday and is addressing his home-state delegation on Thursday.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who finished second in New Hampshire’s Republican primary this year, is not appearing at the convention itself. But he will join New Hampshire delegates at a reception at a local restaurant on Wednesday.

Walker gets his chance to address the South Carolina delegation on Tuesday morning. Cotton will meet Iowa delegates Tuesday at a lunch that Strawn organized. Both Cotton and Walker will also visit the New Hampshire delegations.

“It’s been my experience that the more serious a candidate might be wanting to engage Iowans, the more serious amount of time he spends with us,” Strawn said. “Iowans appreciate hearing from leaders they maybe don’t know.”

Cotton is casting perhaps the widest net. After meeting South Carolinians on Monday, he addressed delegates from Ohio. On Thursday, he will make the long trek to Sandusky, Ohio, where the California delegation is staying. Cotton’s aides reached out to the California state party to request an invitation, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Cotton is also scheduled to meet with delegations from Connecticut and Florida, spokesman Brett O’Donnell said.