New Righteous Brothers aim to top political hit parade

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THEY call James Dobson, Gary Bauer and John Ashcroft the Righteous Brothers - not the richly deep-voiced Sixties singers, but the vanguard of a new conservative Christian movement marching on Washington. After years in the political wilderness, America's religious right is back.

Social conservatives feel the Republican Party has led them up the garden path. They want an end to abortion, gay rights and to any gun control - and their demands are causing uproar in the party as America gears up for elections.

Imagine the Labour Party of the early 1980s crossed with the schisms of the early Church, and you're close.

James Dobson, 62, is a broadcaster.Gary Bauer, 51, a former Reagan administration official, heads the Family Research Council. John Ashcroft, 56, is a senator from Missouri. They are the heirs to a tradition of religious conservatism that helped keep Ronald Reagan in office for eight years. But they feel that the party scorned them and that the Republicans' candidate in the 1996 presidential race, Robert Dole, betrayed the cause. Now they want to put things right - in every sense of the word.

They are part of what conservative thinker William Kristol calls a "parallel universe" - a flourishing world of radio stations, syndicated columns and newsletters. It intersects with the political universe when candidates are being nomin- ated and small groups of highly motivated individuals can be very influential.

The Righteous Brothers have money and they have an audience. Mr Bauer's Campaign for Working Families has raised $3.7m in contributions in a year. Nearly six million people listen to Mr Dobson's radio show every day; millions more have bought his books. All three are astute and uncompromising figures who know how to promote themselves and their agenda. "They say you can't legislate morality," says Mr Ashcroft. "Well, you certainly can." What has boosted their importance is the weakness of the conservative Christian leadership. Pat Robertson, its star in the 1980s, has been in eclipse for years and his Christian Coalition has lost influence.

Mr Dobson's Focus On The Family has moved into the vacuum, with a brisk, family-oriented, authoritarian moralism. He first made his name with Dare to Discipline, a child-rearing guide for the tough of mind and hard of hand - a discipline which he wants to bring back to the party. Earlier this year, Dobsonthreatened to pull away from the Republicans unless they started adopting his agenda. The party has been forced to listen.

"There's a lot of anxiety among the official Republican political class to see that these guys are aboard," says Mark Silk, of the Centre for the Study of Religion in Political Life in Connecticut. "The real concern is not an interest in what they can do positively, it is the fear of what they can do negatively." Influence behind the scenes is not enough, however: Messrs Bauer and Ashcroft have both started to sound out the prospects of a presidential candidacy in 2000. Senator Ashcroft, with plenty of on-the-stump experience, could be one of three or four Republicans with a serious shot at the nomination.

But his righteous partners are already having a political impact, backing candidates in Republican primaries for this year's congressional races, which in turn has triggered conflicts among different factions within the party.

The economy is booming and President Bill Clinton is as popular as ever, but the Republicans could still have expected a good showing in November's elections. The religious right, however, is causing near-civil war in some of their key campaigns. The social conservatives are finding it increasingly hard to get on with the economic conservatives, and the historic marriage which Mr Reagan helped forge between them and the moderates is on the rocks.

"We urge the Republican leadership to abandon their plans to follow Bauer and Dobson to sure electoral defeat and instead develop a message to the fiscal conservative voters who dominate the centre of the electorate," wrote Mark Miller of the Republican Leadership Council. In a trenchant analysis in the Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Caldwell argues that the party, caught between economic conservatives, the religious right and its moderate wing, is in danger of becoming "obsolescent".

But does that bother the Brothers? "I believe a Republican meltdown is preferable to... the present betrayal of the moral agenda," says Mr Dobson. While Mr Bauer says simply: "We are the party."