Tom Cotton Raises Profile in Washington (AP Analysis)

LITTLE ROCK - Less than half a year into a term representing south Arkansas, Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton is turning into a hero among conservative activists who view him as the best hope for toppling the state's lone Democratic senator. Democrats, however, are just as eager to take on a candidate they believe they can cast as too extreme.

The 36-year-old freshman lawmaker is widely viewed as the most likely challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor in next year's election, yet he's offered few clues on his plans.

"I wouldn't say I'm really taking a look at anything right now, just because it's so early in the campaign cycle," Cotton said last week. "I'm just trying to focus on my legislative work here and serving the people of Arkansas."

Despite his reticence, Cotton is enjoying a higher profile nationally than any of the state's other Republicans in Washington. From appearing on "Meet the Press" to denouncing the Obama administration's counterterrorism efforts on the House floor, Cotton has taken a series of steps that leave many wondering about his political future.

The steps include his proposal last week to reduce the number of federal appeals judges for the District of Columbia circuit from 11 to eight. Cotton unveiled the proposal - dubbed the "Stop Court Packing Act" - the same day President Barack Obama nominated three judges to the circuit and challenged Senate Republicans to confirm them.

"I think it's pretty clear that the president is trying to add three new judges to the court because he's worried they're not just a rubber stamp for his out of control regulatory agenda," Cotton said.

The move was the latest jab Cotton has taken at the Obama administration. In April, he criticized it from the House floor for "failing in its mission to stop terrorism before reaching its targets in the United States" since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Democrats roundly criticized the remarks, saying he ignored post-9/11 incidents under the Bush administration such as mailing of anthrax-laced letters and the attempted shoe bombing of an airliner in 2001.

Cotton's also come under fire for a recent proposal that would have extended sanctions on Iranian human rights violators to their families - an idea that has been criticized as eliminating due process. Cotton, who withdrew the proposal, has defended the idea and said it would only apply to sanctions on Iranians - not any American citizens.

"I'm very surprised the president's own party seems to be going soft on Iran," Cotton said.

One reason for Cotton's appeal to conservative activists is that he's not a fan of understatement. When he joined with House Republicans to vote for the federal health overhaul's repeal, he compared the unsuccessful effort to defeat the law to an ancient Roman senator's ongoing call to destroy Carthage. When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died in March, Cotton responded with "Sic semper tyrannis," or Latin for "thus always to tyrants." John Wilkes Booth uttered the same after assassinating President Lincoln.

The rhetoric and Cotton's resume - a Harvard-educated lawyer who served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan - is what's prompting many within his party to urge him to challenge Pryor.

"He's a conservative. This is a conservative state. I think he would represent us well," said Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, who's been publicly encouraging Cotton to run. "He has shown he has the political ability to put an effective campaign together and to communicate effectively. All of those things are important in a political campaign. I think that he'd be excellent."

Griffin, who this year ruled out his own run against Pryor, said he doesn't know if Cotton will run. But he added: "I wouldn't continue encouraging him if I thought I was wasting my time."

Cotton's proposals and rhetoric are just as encouraging to Democrats who say they believe the freshman lawmaker would be rejected as too ideologically extreme in a statewide contest. With no announced challenger against Pryor, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already targeted Cotton with a steady stream of news releases portraying his stances on issues such as health care and his sanctions proposal as out of step with Arkansas.

Democrats also view the involvement of conservative groups that are already airing ads targeting Pryor more than 17 months away from the election as a sign that Cotton's in.

"He commands a lot of loyalty and a lot of cash from special interests in D.C. They're clearly going to spend the cash on his behalf," said Matt Canter, DSCC's deputy director. "The problem for Tom Cotton is his arrogance and his dangerous positions on issues that matter to people."

One of the groups already targeting Pryor is the Club for Growth, which backed Cotton's House bid last year and has signaled it's ready to do the same if he joins the Senate race.

"The Club for Growth PAC endorsed Tom Cotton because of his strong beliefs in economic freedom and so far in Congress he's been every bit the pro-growth champion we thought he'd be," Barney Keller, the group's communications director. "If he does decide to run for the United States Senate, our PAC would take a strong look at endorsing his candidacy."

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