Is Dobson's Political Clout Fading?

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Dr. James Dobson founder of Focus on the Family.

James Dobson, the founder and head of the evangelical media and counseling group Focus on the Family, is constantly described by the media as a power broker, kingmaker, and "the Christian right's most powerful leader." As such, his endorsement is seen as key by G.O.P. presidential candidates in the 2008 race. On Wednesday night, his political action website released assessments of the major Democratic and Republican candidates — and political observers immediately checked in to see whether Dobson's organization was leaning toward Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney, the two G.O.P. candidates who have made the biggest play for the evangelical vote. As Focus on the Family weighs in on the presidential race, however, an examination of the group's records shows that its influence may not be all that it once was, and that its actual base may have become smaller.

For months, Dobson has been playing it coy, seeming to favoring the Mormon Mitt Romney over Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, who would otherwise appear to be the natural Christian right choice. In December, Dr. Dobson praised a Romney speech as "a magnificent reminder of the role religious faith must play in government and public policy. His delivery was passionate and his message inspirational." Dobson even made a congratulatory phone call to the candidate.

When Romney lost the Iowa caucuses to Huckabee, Dobson attributed the outcome to "conservative Christians," but he has not warmed to the former governor of Arkansas. Huckabee, Dobson cautioned after his Iowa victory, "may not become the Republican nominee." And Huckabee, who has spoken of his great and longtime friendship with the Dobsons, has wondered aloud why no endorsement appears to be coming his way. In the assessments, Huckabee was found wanting in terms of foreign policy and "fiscal" issues. (A couple of minutes in the video citing the candidate for his evangelical "authenticity" were apparently edited in after the video was first posted.) Romney, on the other hand, was praised as "solidly conservative" and unlikely to renege on that stance.

Dobson has only endorsed one presidential candidate in the past — George W. Bush in 2004, who ran unopposed for the G.O.P. nomination. And the Christian right's most powerful leader may not want to back a candidate so early in the game. Backing a losing horse could devalue the worth of any future Dobson anointment, especially when America is seeing the rise of a younger generation of less combative preachers like Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and Bill Hybels.

The founder of the Colorado Springs-based organization may have reason to be concerned about his influence. At the age of 71 and semi-retired from the day-to-day operations of his organization, Dobson is seeing Focus on the Family's fortunes wane — CEO Jim Daly describes them as "flat" — perhaps an inevitability for a ministry pegged to one towering figure. The ministry's expenses have exceeded its revenues for two years — what Daly calls a "drawdown from reserves" — by $4.1 million in fiscal year 2006 and by $9.9 million in 2005. (Figures for 2007 have not yet been released.)

The ministry apparently has been "flat" for some time. For example, in 1994 Dobson's monthly newsletter had a circulation of 2.4 million copies. Today, that circulation is about 1.1 million. Also, in the 1990s, Dobson was drawing audiences of 15,000 or more to his speeches; but in the lead-up to the 2006 mid-term election, only about 1,000 people heard his anti-abortion speech at the 2,500-seat Mt. Rushmore National Monument amphitheatre. Daly explains that the event was a last-minute invitation and that Dobson rarely accepts speaking engagements.

According to news accounts and audited financial reports posted online for potential donors, the organization's staffing is down (30 layoffs last September). Total donations and number of donors are down as well. Focus orders and resells copies of Dobson's tapes and books, which are the evangelist's personal business; but those purchases have declined from $678,000 in 2004 to $269,000 in 2006. His last book was published in 2001; another is not anticipated until 2009. The whole Dobson family, including wife Shirley, daughter Danae and son Ryan, produce books and tapes, but revenue from all Dobson-family materials are down, from $781,000 in 2004 to $307,000 in 2006.

His radio broadcasts have a reported audience of 220 million people around the world, a number that has remained unchanged for many years. It is estimated that up to 8.9 million people in the U.S. hear his programs, although Arbitron says that figure is difficult to verify because statistics are garnered from time slots on local stations, not individual programs. A recent issue of Dobson's Focus on the Family Magazine highlighted his widely dispersed global audience: "Indonesia now has a potential Focus audience of 70 million people. In Malaysia each year, Focus airs hundreds of 90-second James Dobson commentaries in Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, over the public address system in supermarkets, and on the radio to a predominantly Muslim population of more than 24 million."

Even Focus on the Family Action — Dobson's most recent project, founded in 2004 to help steer public policy — seems stalled. Daly says Action's fortunes are tied to "hot issues in the public square"; in his letter to potential donors, Dobson offers "occasional specific voting recommendations on ballot measures in your area and on a national level." But contributions declined from $8.8 million in 2004, its start-up year, to $6.8 million in 2006, while website hits fell from 18,000 monthly in 2005 to 8,700 monthly in 2006. A Focus spokesperson says Focus Action is not the main public policy website and that, where the candidate assessments were announced, is doing much better.

Dobson has nimbly kept his footing atop the evangelical heap, a position he has built since the 1970s. He has never been tainted by personal scandal and has regularly been consulted by Presidents, including the current Bush White House. Just last month, a federal judge temporarily allowed the Bush Administration to keep its list of visitors to the White House secret, a list sought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington specifically trying to track visits by Dobson and other conservative religious leaders. But some political observers feel that his influence on the President is overstated. If so, making the right endorsement in the '08 race may be more important to him than ever. With reporting by Michael Scherer