"Everyone knows he's conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for," Dobson said of Thompson. "[But] I don't think he's a Christian; at least that's my impression," Dobson added, saying that such an impression would make it difficult for Thompson to connect with the Republican Party's conservative Christian base and win the GOP nomination.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Thompson, took issue with Dobson's characterization of the former Tennessee senator. "Thompson is indeed a Christian," he said. "He was baptized into the Church of Christ."
In a follow-up phone conversation, Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger stood by Dobson's claim. He said that, while Dobson didn't believe Thompson to be a member of a non-Christian faith, Dobson nevertheless "has never known Thompson to be a committed Christian--someone who talks openly about his faith."
"We use that word--Christian--to refer to people who are evangelical Christians," Schneeberger added. "Dr. Dobson wasn't expressing a personal opinion about his reaction to a Thompson candidacy; he was trying to 'read the tea leaves' about such a possibility."
Thompson has said he is leaving the door open for a presidential run and has won plaudits from conservatives who are unenthusiastic about the Republican front-runners. A Gallup-USA Today poll, released yesterday, showed Thompson in third place among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, behind former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
While making it clear he was not endorsing any Republican presidential candidate, Dobson, who is considered the most politically powerful evangelical figure in the country, also said that Gingrich was the "brightest guy out there" and "the most articulate politician on the scene today."
Gingrich recently appeared on Dobson's daily Focus on the Family radio program, carried by upward of 2,000 American radio stations, where he made headlines by discussing an extramarital affair he was having even as he pursued impeachment against President Bill Clinton for his handling of the investigation into the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Dobson's phone call to U.S. News senior editor Dan Gilgoff yesterday was unsolicited. It marked Gilgoff's first discussion with Dobson in over two years, since the magazine's political writer began work on The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War, published this month by St. Martin's Press. Dobson had agreed to answer only written questions for the book.
Dobson's comments yesterday about the 2008 presidential race appear to be his first to a secular news organization in months.
Dobson recently sat down with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at Focus on the Family's Colorado Springs headquarters, marking his only meeting to date with a top-tier Republican presidential candidate. While Dobson would not comment directly on the Romney meeting, he stood by comments he made late last year that many evangelicals would find it difficult to support Romney because of his Mormonism.
"I still think that might be an impediment for him," Dobson said. "There are conservative Christians who will not vote for him because of his Mormon faith. I'm not saying that's the correct view or my view. But [presidential nominees] lose elections by 5 or 6 percent of the vote, so you don't have to lose much of the conservative Christian vote" to make a difference in the election.
Dobson, who turns 71 years old next month, has been the subject of recent rumors that he would retire from his position of Focuon the Family chairman and possibly step out of the political spotlight in the next couple of years. In the interview, however, Dobson said that he no intention of doing either.
"I have 10-to-12-hour-a-day energy," Dobson said. "I feel that God has asked me to do what I'm doing. I have no intention to stay away."
By Dan Gilgoff