Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said this week that people should accept court rulings that legalize same-sex marriage and “show respect” for gays in committed relationships, while reiterating his long-held belief that “marriage is a sacrament.” (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Has Jeb Bush offered the Republican Party a new way to talk about same-sex marriage?

Fred Sainz thinks he has.

Sainz grew up two doors down from Bush in Coral Gables, Fla., and counts the former Florida governor as an early mentor who got Sainz a job working for Bush’s father in the White House. But Sainz left the GOP in 2004 after George W. Bush, Bush’s brother, railed against same-sex marriage in his reelection campaign.

Sainz, now a leader of the gay rights movement as a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, sees an important evolution in the likely 2016 presidential candidate.

In 1994, Jeb Bush argued that gay men and lesbians did not deserve special legal protection and said that “sodomy” should not be “elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion.” But this week, Bush said people should accept court rulings that legalize same-sex marriage and “show respect” for gays in committed relationships, while reiterating his long-held belief that “marriage is a sacrament.”

With a more welcoming message, Bush is trying to shift the Republican Party’s rhetoric on an issue on which the public has been evolving much faster than the GOP. A party that not long ago championed its opposition to same-sex marriage now finds itself on the defensive — even within its own ranks, where social conservatives are at odds with business leaders and young people who openly support gay rights.

In recent presidential cycles, Republican candidates have proudly carried the conservative evangelical banner on same-sex marriage, asserting as Mitt Romney did in 2012 that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But the 2016 GOP field divides into two camps, according to gay rights activists. Most potential candidates have said they oppose same-sex marriage, but some — including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence — have suggested that it is not a motivating concern and that they would focus on other issues.

Other possible contenders — including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and neurosurgeon Ben Carson — are more outspoken in their opposition to same-sex marriage and perform well with base voters on the issue.

Huckabee, who quit his Fox News Channel show this past weekend to explore a presidential run, has said he will abandon the Republican Party if its leaders adopt a more centrist position.

“If the Republicans want to lose guys like me, and a whole bunch of still God-fearing, Bible-believing people, go ahead and just abdicate on this issue,” he said last fall. “At that point, you lose me. I’m gone.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another presidential hopeful, told reporters Wednesday that Florida should preserve its ban on gay marriage approved by voters and appeal a federal court ruling that allowed same-sex marriages to begin in the state this week.

“I do not believe that there is a U.S. constitutional right to same-sex marriage,” he said.

In New Jersey last year, Christie stopped a court battle over such unions because he knew opponents would be defeated.

Paul, meanwhile, has said he believes in “traditional marriage,” but understands that there are different viewpoints and is comfortable letting states decide their own marriage laws.

By 2016, the question of whether presidential candidates support same-sex marriage may be moot: The Supreme Court could rule as early as this summer that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Some Republicans see a political advantage in letting the court settle the issue before the primaries.

Regardless, the marriage issue and other gay rights matters — including workplace and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation — could figure into the campaign debate and reveal divisions within GOP ranks.

On the Democratic side, the 2016 potential hopefuls fully support same-sex marriage. Likely front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced her backing of such unions soon after stepping down as secretary of state in 2013, while Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a law in 2012 allowing gay men and lesbians to marry in his state.

Among Republicans, by contrast, the presidential debate stage is unlikely to include gay-friendly voices such as Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), who declared his support for same-sex marriage in 2013 after his son came out as gay. He considered running for president, but decided instead to seek reelection to the Senate in 2016.

For Bush, his nuanced statement comes at a time when polls show a growing majority in support of same-sex marriage. About 70 percent of Americans live in the 36 states, as well as the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is allowed following a string of federal court decisions.

“The vast majority of the rhetoric coming from many of these Republican politicians is complete and total denial of marriage being an institution that gay couples should have access to,” said Sainz, the former Bush official. “Why his position is novel and his tonal impact is important is he is at least willing to acknowledge that committed and loving gay people can get married.”

Members of Bush’s family have also taken steps to support same-sex marriage, including George W. Bush’s wife, Laura, and daughter Barbara. In 2013, Bush’s parents — former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush — served as official witnesses at the Maine wedding of two women who own a general store near the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport.

John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that opposes same-sex marriage, said Jeb Bush’s position would hurt him in the Republican primaries, when voters will be hungry for a standard-bearer willing to take the fight to the courts.

“It seems to me that what the base of the Republican Party is looking for is someone who’s going to stand up for that, and Jeb Bush’s comments demonstrate he doesn’t want to be that guy,” Eastman said. “He wants to punt the ball to somebody else.”

Bush initially responded by saying “it ought to be a local decision” in a brief interview with the Miami Herald as he left a golf course in Coral Gables.

But on Monday, Bush delivered a written statement:

“We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law. 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.”

Sainz said that for years Republican politicians have talked about same-sex marriage with a negative tone, but “Bush put that paradigm on its head.”

“He provides people with a sense that he understands there are loving gay couples who are in fact getting married,” Sainz said.