Not so much respect that the state should recognize their commitment as a legal marriage, he stresses, but respect nonetheless.

“We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law,” Mr. Bush said in a statement. “I hope that we can 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.”…

Gay rights leaders said they found Mr. Bush’s statement on Monday encouraging. Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a group that has pushed for same-sex marriage, said that “most Republican politicians have been adamant in their opposition and provide no room for evolution.”

Mr. Bush “at least is expressing his respect for those who support marriage equality,” Mr. Sainz said. “That’s a big change for Republicans.”

Something of a change for Jeb too. BuzzFeed dinged him yesterday by digging up an op-ed from his first run for governor in ’94 in which he framed gay rights as a question of whether “sodomy [should] be elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion.” This is the sort of line-walking he’ll have to do now, though, as a man whose base is in the middle but who’ll need social conservatives to show up for him if he’s the nominee. It’s the flip side of the position traditionally taken by some Democrats on abortion, that they’re personally pro-life but pro-choice as a matter of law (“safe, legal, and rare”). The party’s base has a litmus test on a hot-button issue that could cause the candidate headaches with the broader electorate. Solution: Pass the litmus test by siding with your own side on policy while paying carefully crafted lip service to the other side. I’m curious now to see if any of Bush’s more socially conservative competition takes the bait and knocks him for saying gay relationships deserve “respect,” if not legal sanction. That’d be a fun subplot at the debates: Does Mike Huckabee, who’s friendly enough to gay people to have earned a valentine from liberal Sally Kohn in the Daily Beast, want to make an issue of whether committed relationships between two men or two women deserve “respect”? Swing voters can tolerate a candidate who opposes legalizing gay marriage; I don’t know how they’ll feel about someone whom they regard as anti-“respect,” a real problem potentially someone like Huck whose retail power depends heavily on his perceived affability. And if Huck does attack him on this, so much the better for Jeb. It’ll give him a chance to please establishmentarians and independents by defending gays in a visible way, his anti-SSM position notwithstanding.

All of this is premised, though, on the idea that righties will give Bush a pass on his pronouncements on this subject so long as he continues to stick with them on the actual policy. Will they, though? Ted Cruz could get away with the same rhetoric because conservatives have no doubt where he stands ideologically. They do doubt where Jeb stands, such that I wonder if they won’t treat the “respect” verbiage as a sign that he might “evolve” as president a la Obama towards supporting legalized gay marriage himself. That problem isn’t limited to this issue either. Here’s a line from the mission statement from Jeb’s new Super PAC, “Right to Rise.” Quote: “We believe the income gap is real, but that only conservative principles can solve it by removing the barriers to upward mobility.” Pretty unexceptional; Marco Rubio and Mike Lee talk about using conservative policies to create new opportunities for the lower and middle classes regularly. Coming from Jeb, though, that line about the “income gap” sounds a bit … Warren-ish, no? “While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners,” the statement goes on to say, “they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America.” Quite Warren-ish indeed! And yet, you’ll hear variations on that from nearly every Republican candidate this year, especially ones like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal who’ll be aiming at blue-collar voters and running on economic revival. Because Jeb bears the “RINO” burden, though, it feels more suspicious, an inkling that his presidency would be more left-wing than anyone suspects. Same goes for his statement on gay marriage. How does he solve that problem with conservative voters? Or does he even need to?