CLEVELAND (AP) — The political courtship for 2020 is underway.
The Republican Party's potential future candidates — from House Speaker Paul Ryan to Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton — on Monday schmoozed with state delegations considered critical in a presidential election. The practice, while expected, is a delicate dance in which the party's rising stars circulate among key delegates even before Donald Trump accepts the official nomination this week.
"We're really good at identifying candidates four, even six years out," Jane Page Thompson of Aiken, South Carolina, said before Cotton, a freshman senator, spoke to more than 100 GOP activists at the downtown convention center. "And he's impressive."
Cotton, 39, a former U.S. House member and combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, assailed President Barack Obama's national security policies. National security was the theme of the convention's first day, but also one that plays well among Republicans in South Carolina.
"Our warriors and their families don't ask for much. But there are a few things we'd like: A commander in chief who speaks of winning wars and not merely ending wars, calls the enemy by its name, and draws red lines carefully, but enforces them ruthlessly. And politicians who treat our common defense as the chief responsibility of our federal government, not just another government program," Cotton said on the opening night of the convention.
"This isn't much to ask for, but eight years without it is more than enough."
At a state party fundraiser last weekend, Cotton said: "The world has grown gravely more dangerous over the last eight years. And the reason for that is because Barack Obama's foreign policy is impotent."
Cotton angered the White House and attracted significant attention in March 2015 when he led a group of 47 Republican senators in a letter to Iranian leaders warning that any nuclear pact with the Obama administration could be undone by the next president. It was a rare instance of lawmakers stepping into diplomatic negotiations.
While not uncommon for prospective candidates to make appearances with key-state delegations during their parties' national conventions, it often comes with a nod to the party's current nominee.
However, Cotton never mentioned presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump. He merely said he looked forward to "a great Republican victory in November."
Cotton was also scheduled to meet with Republicans from Iowa and New Hampshire, the traditional lead-off presidential voting states.
Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012, spoke to the Pennsylvania delegation Monday. Although Democrats have carried that state in six consecutive presidential elections, the race between Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is competitive.
Ryan is a die-hard Green Bay Packers football fan, but waved a yellow and black "Terrible Towel," an iconic symbol of Pittsburgh Steelers fans.
"I want to win this election so darn badly that I am willing to do this!" Ryan shouted as he waved the towel.
Ryan was also planning to speak Wednesday to Republicans from Ohio, a must-win swing state for presidential candidates in recent decades.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who waged a brief 2016 bid before quitting the race last year, met with Iowa Republicans Monday morning.
But Walker told The Associated Press Monday that he would not run for president again as a sitting governor, and that he would likely seek a third term as governor in 2018.
Walker planned to use his prime time speech to the Republican National Convention this week to argue that "America deserves better" than Clinton.
Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has run twice unsuccessfully, was also scheduled to meet with Iowans.
Little-known Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who has quickly gained attention since her 2014 election, is meeting with New Hampshire Republicans on Tuesday.
AP reporter Scott Bauer contributed from Madison, Wisconsin.