Here's big news that isn't reported this way: The two front-running Republican candidates for president believe gays and lesbians should be able to serve in our nation's armed forces.

That's what George W. Bush and John McCain are saying when they support the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy that lets homosexuals serve in the military as long as they don't disclose their sexual orientation.

Now, you might ask: But isn't that a "conservative" position? Don't both Al Gore and Bill Bradley favor ending "don't ask, don't tell" and allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly so they won't face harassment and discrimination?

Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes, the tribunes of social conservatism in the presidential race, don't think Bush and McCain are nearly conservative enough and would restore the old ban on gays in the military--which, after all, was the mainstream position in politics only a decade ago.

But neither Keyes nor Bauer is going to win the Republican nomination judging from what conservative Republicans are telling pollsters; Bush and McCain are the candidates of the conservative mainstream.

Attitudes on gay issues have changed so much that McCain answered, "Sure, absolutely," when moderator Tim Russert asked him during a debate in Grand Rapids, Mich., this week if he had served with a gay person during his time in the military. It's exceedingly unlikely a war hero presidential candidate would have said such a thing as recently as a decade ago--or that a moderator would even have thought to ask the question.

"It's extraordinary that 'don't ask, don't tell' is now the conservative position," says David Mixner, a prominent gay rights activist. "I think the American people are more comfortable with the idea that gay and lesbian soldiers serve with honor and distinction and have gotten over a lot of fears."

"This is a noticeable and, frankly, welcomed evolution of the two major presidential candidates," says Rep. Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican sympathetic to gay rights. "They know there are patriotic Americans who served their country, who died for their country, who happened to have a different sexual orientation."

It's true that all the attitudinal studies show a large share of Americans are still uncomfortable with homosexuality. Many social conservatives for whom Keyes and Bauer speak believe that the acceptance now granted homosexuality bespeaks national moral decline.

But that is not the predominant view. David Smith, senior strategist at the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian political organization, says his group's polls show Americans divide roughly into three groups on gay rights issues.

"One-third of the country is firmly anti-gay," he says. "It's rock solid and it's not going to change." Another third is broadly sympathetic to gay rights. "They're our families, our friends--or us." The remaining one-third of Americans is especially important to politicians. "This middle group wants to be fair," Smith says. "They don't want to see gay people hurt or discriminated against. But they're unclear or unsure about public policy matters."

The middle third doesn't want gay rights issues to take center stage in the presidential campaign. "The middle people would much rather be talking about education, child care and health care," he says. "In the middle group, they're probably looking at this"--the arguments among presidential candidates about gays in the military--"and saying: 'Why are they talking about this still?' "

Keyes and Bauer don't appeal to this middle, but it almost certainly reacted badly to Gore's statement that he would use support for gays in the military as a "litmus test" in naming members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It's not surprising that Gore backed off that comment so quickly. The moderate group, Smith says, is largely against gay marriage but opposes job discrimination against gays and is more willing than in the past to provide gay couples with some of the legal protections married people enjoy.

The most important change in the past decade, Mixner thinks, is in the political thinking of Americans who remain uneasy with homosexuality. "A lot of the middle group once felt that they had to approve or be comfortable with gay people to support their rights," he says. "Now, I think, there's a realization that you don't have to approve or be comfortable to support individual rights. Nowhere in the Constitution does the word 'comfortable' appear."

That Bush and McCain are comfortable saying what they're saying about gays in the military, and that Gore and Bradley are willing to press even further, is the best evidence that Mixner is right.