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Marriage equality: The headache Jeb Bush can't avoid

Marriage equality’s arrival in the Sunshine State could have big implications for 2016 — especially for the state’s former governor.

For hundreds of gay and lesbian couples across Florida, 2015 will be remembered as the year that began with saying “I do.” But marriage equality’s arrival in the Sunshine State could have big implications for 2016, too – especially for the state’s former governor, Jeb Bush.

After flubbing his initial response to a federal ruling that struck down Florida’s same-sex marriage ban, which went into effect on Tuesday, Bush delivered an artful statement on the matter Monday evening -- illustrating just how tight a spot many Republican presidential hopefuls now find themselves in when it comes to marriage equality.

“We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law,” said Bush in a written statement. “I hope that we can also show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue -- including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty.”

Opposition to same-sex marriage, long a centerpiece of the GOP social agenda, has in the last year turned into a political headache as a growing number of states are seeing their bans on same-sex nuptials collapse, and a growing number of voters are welcoming that change.

At the same time, however, Republicans like Bush eyeing a possible 2016 bid can’t just drop the issue altogether. They’re still faced with having to appeal to the party’s socially conservative primary voters, many of whom are older, religious and value the concept of traditional marriage. The challenge for these potential GOP hopefuls is to win over the social conservatives in a way that doesn’t completely destroy their chances of winning the general election -- something that the past two Republican nominees have been unable to accomplish.

So where does that leave Bush, who’s inching closer toward a 2016 presidential run and would be viewed as a serious contender?

Bush’s statement Monday night marked a considerable step up from a brief post-golf interview he gave to the Miami Herald over the weekend, during which he offered a kind of half-hearted affirmation of his earlier opposition to marriage equality. “The people of the state decided,” Bush told the Herald on Sunday. “But it’s been overturned by the courts, I guess.”

In recent years, Bush has spoken of the political dangers associated with backing policies seen as anti-gay. He told the crowd at a 2013 Conservative Political Action Committee’s (CPAC) event that the GOP needed to “move beyond the divisive and extraneous issues that currently define the public debate.”

Yet while Bush’s supporters view him as an electable candidate who can appeal to the center of an ever-more diverse national electorate, his record as governor is actually quite conservative. In 2004, Bush supported his older brother, former President George W. Bush, in a push to create a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But four years later, after he’d left office, Jeb Bush expressed some reservations about the campaign to enshrine Florida’s ban on same-sex nuptials in the state’s constitution, saying the change was not needed. He ended up supporting the effort.

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In 2012, the former governor again went on the record with his opposition to marriage equality, telling PBS’s Charlie Rose that “traditional marriage is what should be sanctioned” by the government. He added, however, that same-sex parents who “love their children with all their heart and soul” should be held up as role models.

Given his past statements, Bush’s latest attempt at talking about marriage equality certainly contained some of the most sympathetic language he’s ever used in reference to LGBT rights. Still, Democrats and marriage equality advocates were quick to pounce. In a statement, Democratic National Committee communications director Mo Elleithee declared that Bush had said “absolutely nothing.” “Nothing’s changed,” said Elleithee. “At the end of Bush’s statement, he still had the same position: He opposes the right of gay and lesbian Floridians — and all LGBT Americans — to get married and adopt children.”

But conservative political watchers were more impressed with his tact. “Here is a fascinating nuance,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a former national GOP official and a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, via email. “Jeb is a Catholic convert. All Christian churches have marriage rituals, but only Catholics, some Anglicans, and some Orthodox call it a sacrament.”

“He wants to avoid endorsing same-sex marriage, and avoid giving offense to anyone,” continued Pitney. “Most of all, he wants to avoid the issue entirely.”

At midnight Tuesday, Florida became the 36th state where gay and lesbian couples could legally wed. It marked the latest development in a stunning streak of legal victories for marriage equality, set off by the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to strike down a federal provision that prevented the U.S. government from recognizing same-sex nuptials. The high court is widely expected to take up a marriage equality case in the near future, and decide once and for all whether any ban on gay marriage falls in line with the U.S. Constitution.

But it’s not just courts of law where marriage equality has seen success; in the court of public opinion too, the movement has been thriving. According to a 2013 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, 54% of Floridians said they favored marriage equality, indicating that the state’s seven-year-old constitutional ban on same-sex nuptials would likely not pass if it were put to voters today. A more recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found even higher support for marriage equality -- 57% -- among Florida voters. Nationally, polls have found a majority of Americans in favor of marriage equality as well. Fifty-nine percent of voters, a record high, said they supported the right of same-sex couples to legally wed, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Given those numbers, Republicans have understandably been reluctant to speak out against marriage rights. The issue barely came up during the 2014 midterm elections, which took place one month after the Supreme Court cleared the way for marriage equality’s expansion to 11 more states. And as 2016 contenders began to make moves, many political observers predicted more sounds of silence from the GOP on marriage equality -- especially in electoral vote-rich swing states like Florida.

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For Bush especially, who seems to be positioning himself as more of a moderate Republican -- unlike say, Sen. Marco Rubio, another potential 2016 contender from Florida with close ties to the tea party wing -- knocking marriage equality’s arrival in his home state could have been a particularly dangerous strategy further down the campaign trail. Yet since he takes more liberal positions on immigration and education than many potential GOP contenders – he supports immigration reform and so-called Common Core education standards --  Bush could hardly afford to give potential primary challengers any more ammunition.

“If you look at both marriage equality statements, it shows the box that Bush is stuck in,” said Eddie Vale, vice president of the Democratic opposition research firm American Bridge.

“What he originally said, when he came out grumbling about how it should be a states’ rights issue … that is a much more similar position to what he’s said before,” Vale said. “And I think he realized that wasn’t playing out so well. Then you see him with this second statement trying to be more moderate -- that’s just opening to door for people to hit on the right in the GOP primaries.”

However, Keith Appell, a GOP strategist with close ties to social conservatives, doesn’t believe that Bush’s latest remarks on marriage equality will make him a target. “You need to be firmly on one side or the other; any time you seem to be equivocating is a recipe for disaster,” Appell said. “This statement is fine. I think that’s probably going to be the statement, or some version of the statement, where most Republican presidential candidates are going to come down.”