The Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. Here's what you need to know. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

That sigh of relief you heard following the Supreme Court's ruling Friday legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide wasn't just from LGBT activists; it also came from savvy Republicans who had been quietly rooting for just that decision for a very long time.

Publicly, of course, most Republicans, and particularly those running for president, disagreed with the ruling to one degree or another. There was the angry denunciation — “Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that,” said Bobby Jindal — and the careful line-walking — “I believe in traditional marriage. … I also believe that we should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments,” said Jeb Bush.

But, the simple political reality is that the fight over gay marriage has long been over. Public opinion has surged in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to marry over the last decade, and young people (even Republican young people) are far more tolerant of allowing gays to marry than are those 65 years and older.

The problem for Republicans, who have long acknowledged that reality, is that their party's base remains quite socially conservative and opposed to gay marriage. As long as there was a fight — in the states or in the judiciary — they were forced to fight in order to preserve their credibility within a critical voting bloc of their party. And by so doing, they were positioning themselves increasingly outside the center of political thought on the issue, complicating any effort to court independent or Democratic-leaning voters in the process.

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The court's ruling now gives Republicans a very clear way to both satisfy their base while also not alienating the rest of the country. I don't agree with what the court said, you can hear a Republican running for president saying, but it is now the law of the land and I will respect it.

Don't believe me? Check out this statement from the decidedly conservative Ben Carson: “While I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision, their ruling is now the law of the land.”

And here’s GOP strategist Matt David, who worked for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is also running for president, echoed Carson’s comments and then made the case for letting sleeping dogs lie about as well as anyone could.

“ … Given 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.”

What this ruling does then is take same-sex marriage off the table as a major talking point, debate issue or differentiator between the candidates during the coming Republican primary. Yes, Jindal, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — to name three — will talk about this ruling as part of a broader indictment of the increasingly liberal culture. But for the likes of Bush, Marco Rubio and others, they will no longer have to walk a political minefield when responding. The I disagree but it's the law of the land line is difficult to argue against; it's the line most establishment Republican candidates now use when abortion is brought up as an issue in a Republican primary.

The truth of the matter is this: Given where public opinion is heading (and has already headed) on gay marriage, the less said about it, the better when it comes to Republicans’ chances of winning back the White House in 2016 and beyond. It had become abundantly clear over the last decade that the GOP's position in opposition to gay marriage was increasingly a minority view. And the worst thing in politics is to stay on a boat that is sinking — faster and faster.

The court just threw Republican candidates a life preserver. They would do well to grab it.

President Obama lauded the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage at the White House Friday. Here are key moments from President Obama's speech. (AP)