One notable exception was retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a favorite among the conservative grassroots, who defended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s instructions. “Roy Moore understands the importance of preserving states’ rights in the modern post-Civil War world in which we live,” Carson told POLITICO in an email sent from his spokesman.

The overall cautious responses to the Alabama case expose that there’s a limit to how far Republicans will go to oppose same-sex marriage as they prepare for a presidential election.

For one thing, even as the conservative base still strongly opposes gay marriage, the broader electorate is increasingly open to the idea. A May Gallup poll showed that 55 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while just 30 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of self-described conservatives favor it.

Although Moore says he is taking a stand against federal intrusion, a favorite rallying cry for conservatives, experts note note that his legal arguments are shaky at best. His statements also have at times been provocative, making it even tougher for Republicans to line up behind him.