Rather than simply focusing on gay marriage as a moral issue, some potential conservative presidential contenders – who all condemned the Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that struck down the federal ban on gay marriage – also voiced their support for states' rights, reflecting an avenue to thread the needle on social issues.
But despite the social conservative dominance in two of the three early presidential nominating states, experts say politicians, from Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are not likely to jeopardize their presidential ambitions by choosing not to employ fire and brimstone condemnations following the ruling.
"I believe each state, acting through their elected representatives or the ballot, should decide their own definition of marriage," said Rubio in a lengthy statement. "For the purposes of federal law, however, Congress had every right to adopt a uniform definition and I regret that the Supreme Court would interfere with that determination. I respect the rights of states to allow same-sex marriages, even though I disagree with them."
Ryan, who was Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate in 2012, also said he believes marriage is between one man and one woman.
"[Marriage] is the foundation for the family. I respect those who have a different view, and I hope we can carry on this conversation with civility and understanding," he said in a release. "There are honest disagreements over how we should recognize different legal arrangements. The states will now decide this issue through the democratic process."
Christie, in a New Jersey radio appearance, called the court's 5-4 dismissal of the federal ban on gay marriage a bad decision.
"I thought that Justice [Anthony] Kennedy's opinion in many respects was incredibly insulting to those people, 340-some members of Congress who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and Bill Clinton," he said. "They basically said the only reason to pass that bill was to demean people. What I've said all along is what I said when I vetoed the last one, let the people decide. You're talking about changing an institution that's over 2,000 years old."
Rand Paul, in a radio interview with Glenn Beck, questioned whether the government should be involved with sanctioning marriages at all.
"Historically, we did at the state legislative level, we did allow for some social mores to be part of it," he said. "Economically, if you just look without any kind of moral periscope and you say, 'What is it that is the leading cause of poverty in our country?' It's having kids without marriage. The stability of the marriage unit is enormous and we should not just say, 'Oh, we're punting on it, marriage can be anything.'"
Keith Nahigian, former presidential campaign manager for Michele Bachmann, says Rubio and Ryan's support for states' rights can also be a conservative winner.
"You are never in a bad position in the primaries being on the side of states' rights and Supreme Court decisions never really influence things as much as people think," he said.
David Woodard, a South Carolina political consultant and visiting professor at Southern Methodist University, says conservatives in the Palmetto State want to pick a winner, rather than just a feel-good candidate.
"The feeling amongst Republicans is that they could have won in 2012 with a better candidate," he says. "To sort of remain hardheaded in the face of the evidence would probably not be wise so coming to South Carolina and just campaign hard on the social issue, I don't think that's very viable anymore."
Ford O'Connell, a political consultant who worked on the McCain-Palin campaign, cautions that there may be some room for a social conservative – such as Rick Santorum – to gain some early momentum in 2016, but didn't think it would be a make-or-break issue."There may be some greater room for a social conservative candidate to be able to walk further through the door in some early states," he says.