Can Marco Rubio Save the GOP in 2016?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 16, 2015 · 1:15 PM EDT

The Republican presidential field looks unusually diverse this cycle — an African-American (Ben Carson), an Indian-American (Bobby Jindal), a woman (Carly Fiorina) and a Hispanic, or, if you prefer, a Cuban (Marco Rubio). One candidate is married to a Hispanic originally from Mexico (Jeb Bush).

There is even a Canadian in the field.

Oh, wait. That can’t be.

The Canadian actually is half Cuban (Ted Cruz), so that really makes one-and-a-half Cubans in the race.

For a political party that relies overwhelmingly on the votes of whites, that’s a pretty diverse group.

But most of the candidates frequently mentioned as being in the top tier in the Republican race — Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — are non-Hispanic white men. The lone exception is Rubio.

(Some observers also include Cruz and potentially Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich in the top tier. But Cruz’s style and ideological rigidity limit his ultimate appeal, both in the GOP and, more importantly, in November. Kasich is merely another white guy.)

With whites constituting a smaller percentage of the general-election electorate over the past two decades — from 85 percent of the electorate in 1988 to 77 percent in 2004, 72 percent in 2012 and probably no more than 70 percent next year — and Republicans faring poorly with blacks, Latinos and even Asian-Americans, GOP strategists are looking to make the party more welcoming and appealing to minority voters.

Given his background, Rubio would seem to have a general-election appeal other top-tier hopefuls don’t have.

Paul, of course, argues his more tolerant positions on cultural issues make him more appealing to younger voters, while his free-market approach to immigration enhances his appeal among Hispanic voters.

But Paul’s views on foreign policy and national security seem at odds with most of his party, and while libertarians have a foothold in the GOP, the party is dominated by traditional conservatives, most of whom aren’t the least bit comfortable with the libertarian approach to foreign policy or cultural issues.

Bush speaks fluent Spanish, and his wife and children, who presumably would be on the stump with him from time to time, would help him paint a different picture of the GOP. Moreover, the former Florida governor’s positions on immigration and his emphasis on education as governor of Florida could give him an entrée into the minority community and with younger voters.

But Bush’s family tree is a very mixed blessing, and it makes it difficult for the establishment favorite to present himself as a vehicle for change and to appeal to distrustful conservatives.

And Walker?

The Wisconsin governor’s appeal to the GOP base is understandable. He took on organized labor and state employees in 2011, when he sought to limit collective bargaining rights in the state — yet he is a conservative Republican from the upper Midwest whose style seems more measured than some of his angrier, confrontational colleagues in the race.

But at least on the surface, Walker is the least likely top-tier Republican hopeful to broaden the image of his party. By the time Election Day rolls around, Walker would be a 49-year-old white evangelical, hardly the sort of profile that would present a different face of the GOP to voters.

The governor’s profile and personal style probably wouldn’t help his party reach out to Hispanics or younger voters, though his blue-collar style might have appeal to working-class voters, particularly in the Midwest. But Republicans have showed strength with those working-class voters for years, going all the way back to Reagan Democrats.

On the other hand, Rubio, who is fluent in Spanish, appears to check most of the party’s boxes.

His Cuban heritage may not be an unadulterated asset among non-Cuban Hispanics around the nation, but at 44 years of age he presents an image of youthfulness.

Rubio also has some charisma, and he has often delivered upbeat, Reagan-like speeches about opportunity, hope and the future.

In a party filled with elected officials and rank-and-file voters who seem to care more about getting angry than about getting elected, Rubio’s style is exactly what the GOP needs. And his contrast to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is clear, both on issues and generationally.

And unlike many of his competitors in the Republican race, Rubio has the potential to rally a wide range of GOP base voters behind his candidacy, both from the party’s establishment and tea party wings, as he showed in his 2010 Senate race.

Is Rubio the perfect answer for the GOP? Of course not. Nobody is. Every potential nominee has weaknesses, vulnerabilities and liabilities, as well as things to prove.

There continue to be questions about Rubio’s ability to handle the media scrutiny and the political limelight. He has a lengthy legislative record, having been first elected to the Florida House in a late 1999 special election — which means he has cast plenty of votes, in Tallahassee and on Capitol Hill.

Rubio will need to demonstrate some policy heft and a thoughtful seriousness when confronted with complicated questions. His handling of a Chris Wallace question about the Iraq war on Fox News Sunday on May 17 at the very least raises questions about his preparedness.

But the Florida senator starts off his bid for the Republican nomination as the one top-tier hopeful who can bridge the party’s ideological divide and offer a different, more welcoming face and voice for the GOP. Given the nation’s changing demographics, those are not insignificant assets.