Whit Ayres, a leading Republican pollster, has a message for anyone who might dismiss his client Marco Rubio's presidential ambitions.
"Marco Rubio is the Michael Jordan of American politics," Ayres said on Tuesday, comparing the 43-year-old Florida senator to the basketball prodigy's celebrated run in the 1980s at the University of North Carolina. "Anyone underestimates his ability at their peril....He’s substantive, he’s talented and I am very confident that once the voters get the chance to see the kind of candidate he is and the kind of vision he paints for the country that they will place him in the top tier."
Rubio is preparing to launch his presidential campaign on April 13 in his home base of Miami. Ayres, one of Rubio's top advisers, cast the son of Cuban immigrants as the kind of "transformational" candidate who could expand the Republican Party's demographic appeal to the diversifying U.S. electorate and take back the White House.
At a breakfast Tuesday with journalists sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Ayres promoted his new book, "2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America."
The pollster addressed Indiana's controversial new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed last week by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. He said Pence is "a good man" who is quickly trying to fix the law by resolving a conflict between promoting religious freedom as well as protecting gays from discrimination. "Part of the genius of our political system is the ability to resolve fundamental value conflicts," Ayres said.
But Ayres argued that Republican candidates, including Rubio and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who have offered support for Pence and the Indiana law, must do so with a tone of compassion.
“We are headed to the point where a political candidate who is perceived as anti-gay at the presidential level will never connect with people under 30 years old," Ayres said. He added, "More than anything else, it's a tone and an attitude of inclusion and acceptance that Ronald Reagan articulated beautifully and that too few Republicans have articulated effectively of late."
To win presidential elections again, Ayres said, Republicans must make significant inroads with non-white voters, including doubling their share of the Hispanic vote from Mitt Romney's 2012 results.
"Republicans are one candidate and one election away from resurrection," Ayres said. He added, "You’ve got to have a candidate who has the ability to make people take a fresh look at the Republican Party."
Ayres contended that several contenders in the current field could do just that, but that Rubio is the best positioned among them.
"I think Marco Rubio is the most transformational of them all -- and that's what Republicans need, a transformational candidate," Ayres said.
Asked how Rubio can become a top-tier candidate when he faces such stiff competition for donors and establishment party support -- especially in his home state from former Florida governor Jeb Bush -- Ayres argued that the political dynamic can quickly change.
"Candidates generate their own base of support if they have a compelling vision, a compelling story and a compelling message," Ayres said. "You can’t look at the base of support in March of 2015 and predict with great accuracy the base of support in March of 2016. You start with certain assets, you start with a hand that’s been dealt and then your challenge as a candidate is to play the hand you’ve been dealt as successfully as you can.”