Evangelical Leader Threatens to Use His Political Muscle Against Some Democrats

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK

New York Times

January 1, 2005

COLORADO SPRINGS - James C. Dobson, the nation's most influential evangelical leader, is threatening to put six potentially vulnerable Democratic senators "in the 'bull's-eye' " if they block conservative appointments to the Supreme Court.

In a letter his aides say is being sent to more than one million of his supporters, Dr. Dobson, the child psychologist and founder of the evangelical organization Focus on the Family, promises "a battle of enormous proportions from sea to shining sea" if President Bush fails to appoint "strict constructionist" jurists or if Democrats filibuster to block conservative nominees.

Dr. Dobson recalled the conservative efforts that helped in the November defeat of Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate minority leader who led Democrats in using the filibuster to block 10 of Mr. Bush's judicial nominees.

"Let his colleagues beware," Dr. Dobson warned, "especially those representing 'red' states. Many of them will be in the 'bull's-eye' the next time they seek re-election."

He singled out Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Bill Nelson of Florida. All six are up for re-election in 2006.

James Manley, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the new Democratic leader, said Democrats had allowed 204 judicial appointments to move forward in Mr. Bush's first term.

"James Dobson needs to take a moment to focus on the facts," Mr. Manley said. He called Dr. Dobson a "front for the White House."

Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal group People for the American Way, which has often opposed conservative court nominees, said, "Mr. Dobson's arrogance knows no limits." He added: "This is the kind of tactic that ultimately backfires. These senators have served their constituents well and have courageously voted their consciences. I don't think they will take kindly to threats from Mr. Dobson, and I don't think the voters will either."

Dr. Dobson's activities represent a new level of direct partisan engagement on his part. Unlike other conservative Christian leaders, Dr. Dobson owes his grass-roots following primarily to his partly clinical, partly biblical advice on matters like marriage and child-rearing. Before supporting Mr. Bush, he had never endorsed a presidential candidate.

In the aftermath of the election, some of Dr. Dobson's allies are warning their fellow evangelicals not to be seduced by political deal-making. In "an open letter to the Christian church" last month, Charles W. Colson, the born-again Nixon aide and another influential Christian conservative, warned against listing demands of the president or other elected officials.

"To think that way demeans the Christian movement," Mr. Colson wrote with his associate Mark Earley. "We are not anybody's special interest group."

In an interview in his office in Colorado Springs, Dr. Dobson acknowledged that his plunge into partisan politics had irrevocably changed his public image. "I can't go back, nor do I want to," he said. "I will probably endorse more candidates. This is a new day. I just feel a real need to make use of this visibility."

He said that despite initial concerns, his political activities did not appear to have diverted donations from Focus on the Family. He created a sister lobbying organization during the last election, and the two organizations' combined budgets grew to a projected $146 million in 2004, from about $130 million in 2003, with a target of $170 million for 2005.

Dr. Dobson said he was prepared for some disappointments from Mr. Bush. For example, he said, when the president says the country is not ready to overturn the Supreme Court precedents supporting abortion rights, "it bothers me a lot." But Dr. Dobson said he was confident that the president would appoint socially conservative nominees for the courts.

He said of Mr. Bush, "He does not take the bully pulpit and use it effectively." He added, "But when the chips are down, he does the right thing."

Dr. Dobson said he was concentrating his political activities mainly on the court. "The next battle will be over the replacement for Rehnquist," he said, referring to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is being treated for thyroid cancer. "That is not something we can just yawn about."

He said he was hoping that Mr. Daschle's defeat would scare other Democrats. Dr. Dobson said he had been working for Mr. Daschle's defeat since August 2003, when he attended a rally to support Roy S. Moore, then chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, in his unsuccessful legal battle to keep a monument to the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. The crowd's reaction demonstrated the depth of popular resentment of liberal court decisions, Dr. Dobson said.

Spokesmen for all but one of the senators Dr. Dobson mentioned declined to comment or did not return phone calls.

David DiMartino, a spokesman for Mr. Nelson of Nebraska, said the senator was already an opponent of abortion rights and had never supported a filibuster of one of Mr. Bush's appellate nominees.

"Dr. Dobson knows that," Mr. DiMartino said. "The senator and Dr. Dobson have discussed it before. The fact that the media has the letter before the targeted senators indicates his intention has more to do with the media than with persuading anybody in the Senate."