By M.E. SPRENGELMEYER
Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson made a reluctant return to the political stage this week, rallying family-values voters for key congressional races despite deep disappointment in what Republicans have delivered on his agenda.
In a candid discussion at a Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., on Friday, the founder of the Colorado Springs, Colo., evangelical Christian group said he was reluctant to work hard for the GOP this year, as he did with 28 public appearances two years ago.
"In 2004, we really did break our necks to turn out the vote," Dobson said. "Frankly, for the two years since then, for most of it I’ve been extremely disappointed with what the Republicans have done with the power they were given."
"I just wasn’t sure I wanted to put out that effort (again in 2006) if there wasn’t going to be a response to it," said Dobson during a panel discussion, flanked by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Alan Sears, leader of the Alliance Defense Fund, which fights legal battles for the family values movement.
Among Dobson’s disappointments was the failure of the GOP controlled Congress to deliver a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, it took a presidential veto to stop a bill by Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., that would have expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, which Dobson equates to the destruction of human life.
By early this summer, Dobson was among various religious conservatives who openly expressed frustration that the "values voter" agenda was not moving forward. That prompted meetings on Capitol Hill where they gave top lawmakers a punch list of agenda items they wanted addressed, Perkins told a packed ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.
Among the issues, they demanded at least a vote on the marriage amendments authored by two Coloradans _ Sen. Wayne Allard and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, both Republicans.
Although the marriage issue eventually fell far short of the votes needed to move it forward, Dobson said he left the Washington meetings agreeing to rally family values voters again, lest the Congress fall into the hands of liberals.
"I came home absolutely convinced there absolutely is no choice, because the alternative is terrible," Dobson said.
On Wednesday, Dobson and Perkins were in Pittsburgh leading the first of several "Stand for the Family" rallies meant to urge like-minded voters to the polls. Pennsylvania is one of the key battleground states in the fight over the U.S. Senate, as incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., faces a serious challenge from Democrat Bob Casey.
Next month, Dobson will headline major rallies heads to Tennessee and Minnesota _ two more battleground states. Tickets were being sold through a commercial ticket broker’s web site, right alongside tickets for rock ‘n’ roll concerts featuring bands like the "Barenaked Ladies."
Meanwhile, the political arm of Focus on the Family is active in Colorado and seven other states where voters are considering marriage-related ballot measures. In 2004, similar amendments passed around the country, and those initiatives were seen as a magnet that drew unprecedented numbers of traditional-minded voters to the polls.
It remains to be seen whether evangelical Christian voters will be as motivated in 2006, when issues like immigration, the war in Iraq, gas prices and the economy have been at the forefront.
The political action committee, Focus on the Family Action, had a booth at the Washington summit providing voter registration applications and pamphlets like one titled "Why Christians Should … VOTE."
Still, Perkins conceded on Friday, "I don’t think the enthusiasm is at the level it was in 2004."
The enthusiasm is down "because we know these are not the important issues of the day," said Clark Stevens, co-director of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, a group formed to counter the influence of what it calls the "religious right."
"There certainly has been a backlash against the values agenda," Stevens said Friday. "I think Americans are sick of it.
They’re sick of these hollow attempts to push issues that really aren’t the most important issues of the day … instead of dealing with soaring deficits or the war in Iraq."
Professor John Green of the University of Akron, who follows the politics of religious conservatives, said there’s a far different political environment this year.
"It’s clearly going to be an uphill battle for Republicans overall," Green said. "Those same circumstances might make it more difficult for religious conservatives."
But, he added, "One would need to be cautions in underestimating the potential of these groups, particularly in states where their issues are at stake."
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at SprengelmeyerM(at)shns.com)