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2016 GOP hopefuls hit different tones in gay marriage response

Republican presidential hopefuls responded to Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage with a mix of tepid disapproval and fiery condemnation.

Republican presidential hopefuls responded to the Supreme Court's historic same-sex marriage decision Friday with a mix of tepid disapproval and fiery condemnation, reflecting the party’s deep unease with an issue where public opinion tilted decisively toward equality well before the law had caught up.  

RELATED: Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime same-sex marriage opponent whose advisers include many prominent pro-gay rights Republicans, exemplified the more cautious end of the GOP spectrum.

“Guided by my faith, I believe in traditional marriage,” Bush wrote. “I believe the Supreme Court should have allowed the states to make this decision. I also believe that we should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments.”

Bush wasn't the only Republican 2016 hopeful who toned down the fire and brimstone. Dr. Ben Carson, known for his bellicose take on traditional values, issued an even milder response that pointed out his support for same-sex civil unions. 

“While I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision, their ruling is now the law of the land,” Carson said. “I call on Congress to make sure deeply held religious views are respected and protected.” 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio released a statement reiterating his support for “one man and one woman” marriage, but added that Americans “must abide by the law." He also avoided gratuitously antagonizing supporters of Friday’s decision.

“In the years ahead, it is my hope that each side will respect the dignity of the other.”'

“A large number of Americans will continue to believe in traditional marriage, and a large number of Americans will be pleased with the court’s decision today,” Rubio said. “In the years ahead, it is my hope that each side will respect the dignity of the other.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stuck to process complaints, telling reporters in Trenton that "this is something that shouldn't be decided by ... 5 lawyers." 

Not everyone was so sanguine, however, as some of the more socially conservative candidates took the opportunity to distinguish themselves with tougher rhetoric.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had previously suggested states refuse to abide by a Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, held nothing back in his response on Friday.

“I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch,” Huckabee said in a statement. “We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.

Added Huckabee: "The Supreme Court can no more repeal the laws of nature and nature's God on marriage than it can the laws of gravity.” 

RELATED: Obama calls gay marriage ruling a ‘victory of America’

Highlighting a key policy division between the candidates in their response, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called for a constitutional amendment to allow states to determine marriage laws themselves. 

“I believe this Supreme Court decision is a grave mistake,” he said in a statement. “Five unelected judges have taken it upon themselves to redefine the institution of marriage, an institution that the author of this decision acknowledges ‘has been with us for millennia.’” 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) went so far as to call for a constitutional convention to overturn the court's decision while campaigning in Iowa, according to CNN. In an interview with Sean Hannity he called the back-to-back rulings on health care and gay marriage "some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation's history."

A spokeswoman for Bush, Kristy Campbell, told msnbc that the former governor "does not believe amending the Constitution is the right course" and instead would "focus on defending religious liberty by protecting those who act on their conscience and appointing judges who understand the limits placed on them by the Constitution." 

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who famously invoked “man on dog” marriage in opposing gay rights in 2003, also pledged to keep the issue alive. 

“Marriage, the family and our children are too central to a healthy society to not fight for what is best,” Santorum said in a statement.

In early primary and caucus states like Iowa with a strong evangelical streak, there could be an opportunity for GOP candidates to surf a wave of backlash to the Supreme Court on the right. Once that wave crashes in the early primary season, however, the tide will likely pull the issue out to the distant seas, never to be seen again. For all intents and purposes, Friday’s news marks the end point of the GOP’s long struggle against gay marriage.

Like the Supreme Court’s health care decision on Thursday, there’s a palpable undercurrent of relief for many Republicans that the decision is out of their hands. By permanently ending the debate over marriage equality, the Supreme Court removed a wedge issue that had increasingly forced the GOP to choose between appeasing its social conservative base and reaching out to the rest of America, especially millennials, who were growing fiercely supportive of gay rights.

"Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that."'

Public opinion had coalesced around gay marriage and all the momentum was in its direction – 57% of respondents in an NBC News/WSJ poll this week said they were rooting for the court to legalize marriage equality. The electoral benefits of stridently opposing marriage rights, which many credited with helping George W. Bush win re-election in 2004, disappeared long ago.

As a result, few Republicans have been eager to talk about the topic and many prominent strategists, former elected officials, and even a small handful of politicians were already urging the party to embrace marriage equality or at least keep it as far from the political realm as possible. The Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the 2012 presidential election warned that “for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be” and even praised Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio for endorsing marriage equality after his son came out.  

Presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) bluntly acknowledged the new reality in his own statement, which urged the GOP to drop any attempt to overturn the court's decision.

"[G]iven the quickly changing tide of public opinion on this issue, I do not believe that an attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution could possibly gain the support of three-fourths of the states or a supermajority in the U.S. Congress," Graham said. "Rather than pursing a divisive effort that would be doomed to fail, I am committing myself to ensuring the protection of religious liberties of all Americans." 

Ideologically, many Republicans, especially libertarian and business-oriented donors, have grown increasingly comfortable with gay rights and uneasy with the party’s position. Sensing the change, Republican candidates shifted in recent years from aggressively countering gay marriage arguments to complaining that social liberals treated gay marriage opponents too harshly. It was the political equivalent of a defensive crouch.

Many of the Republican responses on Friday followed the same tack, focusing less on how they would try to undo the court’s decision (if at all) and more on how they would protect religious dissenters worried business will be forced to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies or face legal consequences. 

“Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement. “This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision.”

“If we want to save some money, let’s just get rid of the court,” he added.

Walker said he would “call on the president and all governors to join me in reassuring millions of Americans that the government will not force them to participate in activities that violate their deeply held religious beliefs.”

That’s a fight that will enjoy broad support from Republicans for now at least. But even opponents of gay marriage see the writing on the wall. America has spoken, the courts have followed and there’s no going back.