What does it mean to oppose gay marriage?

No, really—this isn't a trick question. For example, can you oppose gay weddings if you're also willing to attend one? A handful of Republican presidential contenders, faced with that question, are trying to split the difference, and coming up with somewhat contradictory answers.

Marco Rubio opposes it, but he says he'd go to a wedding if invited. “If it’s somebody in my life that I care for, of course I would,” he told Fusion. “I’m not going to hurt them simply because I disagree with a choice they’ve made."

For two other candidates, the question isn't hypothetical. Scott Walker opposes same-sex marriage, but he attended the reception of a family member's wedding—though not the ceremony. John Kasich also opposes marriage equality, but he has plans to attend one soon. The Ohio governor's explanation is straightforward: "My friend knows how I feel about the issue, but I’m not here to have a war with him. I care about my friend, and so it’s pretty simple for me."

Kasich's blunt answer frames the dilemma facing Republican candidates. An increasing number of Americans have gay friends and family members for whom they care who are getting married, and most of them simply don't see the point in that being illegal. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Monday finds that a majority of respondents, 51-35, support same-sex marriage. Just as tellingly, an equal proportion believe there's no point in the Supreme Court handing down any ruling that affirms gay-marriage bans, since so many states already allow the unions.

But among Republican voters in the same poll, those numbers are upside down—54 percent oppose gay marriage, with just 30 percent backing it. That puts GOP politicians in a tough spot. Continuing to oppose gay marriage, whether for deeply felt or electorally advantageous reasons, is essential in a Republican primary. But continuing to oppose gay marriage, for whatever reason, is increasingly a handicap in a general election, with a population that's fine with gay marriage and can't see the logical coherence in attending a wedding while also opposing it. Ed Morrissey captures the impatience of conservatives who'd rather stick to more fruitful arguments like national security than get bogged down in apparently losing fights like this one.

Other Republican candidates aren't bothering trying to split the difference. Ted Cruz told Hugh Hewitt he had not attended any wedding, but he filibustered Hewitt's question on whether he would attend one, saying the question is a liberal-media gotcha trick. (Hugh Hewitt, stealth liberal?) Rick Santorum said he wouldn't attend a wedding. Mike Huckabee hasn't offered any indication that he'd attend.

Several candidates have tried a different approach to splitting the difference. They personally oppose same-sex marriage because of their Christian faith, they say, but that they oppose discrimination and think that the decision on whether to legally allow gay marriage ought to be up to the states. That's what Jeb Bush says, it's what Rubio says (though he made headlines for his blunt comment that homosexuality is not a choice), and it's what Rand Paul says.

That aligns the trio pretty closely with what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were saying in 2008. (Clinton and Obama both favored civil unions at the time. Remember civil unions? As gay marriage has spread, they've almost entirely disappeared from the debate, but they survive in Paul's position, since he says there ought to be freedom to contract between adults.) My colleague Conor Friedersdorf speculates that Clinton's past opposition could be a serious challenge for her.

What's interesting is that in 2008, "leaving it up to the states" was a liberal dodge—a bit of faux-states-rightsism that allowed a Democratic candidate to leave the door open to the bluest states legalizing gay marriage without having to sign themselves onto a position that would hurt them in the general election. Now, "leaving it up to the states" is a conservative position, a last-ditch effort by the right to try to keep gay marriage from becoming the law of the land everywhere.

Here's the bad news for these Republicans: That may not be an option much longer. The Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on same-sex marriage, and could effectively make it legal everywhere. As Ramesh Ponnuru notes, the question in the USA Today/Suffolk poll is misleading—what's really at stake is whether states will be allowed to continue denying marriage licenses to gay couples.

Here's the good news for these Republicans: The Supreme Court could effectively take the marriage-equality question out of the picture and allow them to move on. If the justices strike down the remaining bans on gay marriage, the most passionately opposed candidates—that is, probably, Cruz, Santorum, and Huckabee—will continue to rail against it. But their rivals, even those who continue to morally disapprove of gay marriage, will be able to leave a politically dangerous issue alone as decided law.