Bob Dole got down on his knees with Dr. Dobson. It was the least he could do. After all, the others had already made the pilgrimage -- in Phil Gramm's case, at least three times. Lamar Alexander paid his respects to Dr. Dobson, as did Alan Keyes and Pat Buchanan.

To each man who would be president, James C. Dobson, head of the powerful Focus on the Family organization, offered his genial smile, heartfelt prayers and a stern message. The wrath of America's army of evangelicals, he said, awaits any Republican who strays from the hard-line antiabortion fold and embraces the Big Tent philosophy of pluralism in the GOP.

Last month, less than two weeks after praying with Dobson, Bob Dole decided to run the risk, surprising the religious right by saying that the Republican platform ought to express tolerance of voters with differing abortion views. Dobson was incensed. Next, Dole lashed out against Gary Bauer -- chief of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based arm of Dobson's Focus empire. And yesterday, without a word of apology to Dobson or other hard-liners, Dole said his running mate need not agree with his own antiabortion stance.

Dobson, a radio counselor beloved by millions for his gentle, warm on-air manner, is now furious with Dole. In recent weeks he has warned that his followers at the GOP convention -- more than 500 delegates, according to his aides -- will oppose Dole's show of openness. He has dropped pregnant hints about an antiabortion party rising up to challenge Dole in the general election.

Conservatives know full well what Dobson's fury can do. "Dr. Dobson is one of the best-kept secrets in America," says Howard Phillips, the former Reaganaut who created the U.S. Taxpayers Party, a stalking horse that's on the ballot in 30 states this fall. "He's extremely well-known and respected everywhere except the secular world of Washington, New York and Hollywood. That makes him extremely influential."

The GOP knows the numbers: Dobson's Focus family is twice the size of the Christian Coalition. The audience for his daily radio show is right up there with those for Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh. His mailing list dwarfs anything Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell can put together. He's got 3.5 million families on that list, and he didn't buy a single name from the telemarketing industry. They all came to him, for advice, for the love and biblical wisdom he dispenses on the radio.

Dobson has promised never to sell their names to other evangelists or political groups; always to pump their contributions back into the cause; never to take a salary. In return, they give him their trust. All Dobson need do is mention disparagingly a piece of legislation and the Hill is bombarded. When Dobson asked listeners to protest a bill that he believed would restrict home schooling, the congressional switchboard was paralyzed by nearly 1 million calls.

For many years, Dobson has preached that the United States is in the throes of a "civil war of values." In the secular society, it looked as if that battle might be fought between Democrats and Republicans. But Dobson believes the real fight is for the heart of the GOP. He now believes the crucial skirmish may be the one next month, in San Diego.

"If the Republican Party implements the strategy laid out by {chairman} Haley Barbour a year ago of the big tent concept, which really means abandoning the moral issues and moving toward the mushy middle, I would expect there to be some pretty severe conflict at that convention," he says.

This powerful man, little-known to Washington, does not fear a replay of the "cultural war" rhetoric at the 1992 GOP convention in Houston. Far from being an alienating disaster, Dobson contends that Houston was a rousing success, a clear and correct statement of the nation's plight and the party's stance. What he won't tolerate is an attempt to back down now.

"What more can we do?" says Tom Minnery, a former newspaper reporter who is Focus's vice president for public policy. "Dr. Dobson has put as much heat on Haley Barbour as he can. The conservative movement will be strengthened by another Clinton term. From our point of view, things have to get worse before they get better." Voice of the People?

Dobson is a broad-shouldered man of 60 with thin strands of gold and silver hair plastered awkwardly from the back of his head to the front. He looks like a disciple of Ronald Reagan -- genial but cool, polite but headstrong, comfortable in the kind of green checkerboard suit Reagan could have pulled off. He has the big hands and gentle touch of a good pediatrician. And then he begins to speak, and the sweet, earnest California tones emerge, an aural dance of emotion and heavenly reason. He is a radio man, as charismatic in voice as he is plain in appearance.

He is a corporate executive with a $110-million-a-year operation, a shepherd who delivers hundreds of thousands of souls to Jesus, a warm voice for millions shivering in the chill of divorce, single parenthood or unwanted pregnancy. And he is a savvy political player who has tapped into a great national yearning for clear answers to the moral crisis that the Democrats and the Republicans barely seem to address.

"People inside the Beltway are not aware of the multiple millions of Americans out there who believe things differently than is perceived in Washington and have different aspirations for their lives," Dobson says.

"Their views are not represented by your newspaper or by the New York Times or by what goes on on Capitol Hill. They're very concerned about what they consider to be a moral free fall occurring, a moral meltdown in this country. They're worried about their children and what they're exposed to on television and MTV and videos and what Hollywood produces. They're very concerned about safe-sex ideology and what {their kids are} being taught in school. They're waiting for some political figure to articulate those views. And no one does.

"Senator Dole is also unwilling, apparently, to address most of those issues with passion. And we certainly know that President Clinton is not going to do it. . . . In November 1994, 9 million new voters were energized by these issues and went to the polls because they care about the things we've been talking about. That 9 million, I think, is likely to stay home if Senator Dole continues to ignore them and to insult them."

Dole may be confident that Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition will play along as he makes his move for the center. But Dobson refuses to sit quietly.

"Dr. Dobson is increasingly concerned with some of the ways Ralph's been talking about compromising on pro-life," says Focus Vice President Paul Hetrick. "Ralph sets himself up as the representative of millions of Christians, but he's not strongly defending the pro-life positions. There is no compromise on killing babies."

With a knowing smile, Dobson repeatedly states his independence from the GOP, again and again mentioning the U.S. Taxpayers Party, the far-right entity already on 30 state ballots.

Party founder Howard Phillips has twice met with Dobson to ask him to be the party's presidential candidate.

"Some people have suggested that Dr. Dobson should be the candidate," Phillips says. "I'm not going to get into private conversations, but I will say that some people have discussed it with him. He wants to have an impact on policy -- and he does indeed. If Dr. Dobson was outspoken in advising a particular path in relation to Bob Dole, it would have a major impact on the election."

"He would be an unbelievable candidate with an immediate grass-roots base of very loyal folks," Bauer says. "It would be an incredible development in American politics."

Dobson laughs off the idea, adamantly repeating the words with which he has always dismissed the notion of seeking elective office: "I am not qualified. I am not a politician." The Evangelist's Rise

Dobson is not a minister. His doctorate has nothing to do with divinity. It's in child development, from the University of Southern California, where Dobson spent seven years as a professor of pediatrics before leaving to build a radio empire.

Four generations of Dobsons before Jim were ministers in the Church of the Nazarene, a fervent Christian sect that preaches the possibility of moral perfection. Dobson dismisses any thought that he rebelled against his family's path, saying instead that "I simply never heard the call."

Rather, Dobson studied psychology and child-rearing, searching for ways to combine Christian tradition and social science, hoping to counter the permissiveness and declining authority of the 1960s -- a trend encouraged, he says, by the enormous popularity of Benjamin Spock's "Baby and Child Care."

Dobson's seminal work, "Dare to Discipline," a child-rearing primer that outsells Spock's, advises parents to buy a switch and keep it on their child's dresser as a constant reminder of the corporal punishment that will be executed if the young one does not comply with parental authority. In the pristine office from which he looks out at the majestic work of the Creator, the white-tipped mountain called Pike's Peak, there's a portrait of Winston Churchill and a copy of a Rembrandt painted by Dobson's father, but no switch on the desk.

That would be overkill.

Dobson yearns for the world of his youth, a calmer time, when the Value of Children, the Permanence of Marriage, the Sanctity of Human Life, the Importance of Evangelism and the Relationship of Church, Family and Government -- the five guiding principles now inscribed in the rotunda of Focus on the Family's $4 million Welcome Center here -- were the clear consensus.

"The river was less turbulent in those years," Dobson wrote to constituents recently. "I grew up in the Happy Days' of the '50s, when life was not as complicated. There were no drugs in my racially mixed, public high school. . . . There were no punkers, no skinheads, no neo-Nazis, no freaks, no witches and no gay or lesbian activists in those days. And the music of that era was pretty tame by comparison. . . . Every now and then, a girl came up pregnant (it was called being in trouble' then), and she was immediately packed off to some secret location. I never knew where she went."

It was the discord and dissenters of the 1960s that drove Dobson from academia to his unique blend of counseling, evangelism and political activism: "They despised their country, its government, its Christian heritage, its culture, its history, its capitalist economy, its work ethic and its concept of traditional marriage and the family."

Focus on the Family grew out of Dobson's successful weekend seminars on Christian child-rearing. Tired of living out of a suitcase, Dobson needed a way to capitalize on the huge sales of "Dare to Discipline." Radio was the answer.

Dobson was thrilled to find he could convert people to Christianity by providing a sympathetic ear and friendly advice. But Gil Alexander-Moegerle, a former Focus senior vice president and radio co-host who left the organization after a dispute with the founder, says Dobson was also excited by the money and power that came with his new fame.

"Dobson is no phony," Moegerle says. "Evangelizing is not an afterthought, but Dobson is a multimillionaire who is very concerned about his image. He got his interest in Washington in '79, after he orchestrated his own invitation to the White House Conference on the Family by going on the radio and asking people to recommend him." After a storm of 80,000 calls and letters from Focus listeners, the Carter administration invited Dobson to the conference.

"He never looked back," says Moegerle, whose lawsuit against Dobson alleging wrongful termination and invasion of privacy was thrown out. "It was that unbelievable rush that Washington represents for some people."

"The phrase he used in executive staff meetings was, I want to wage guerrilla warfare,' " Moegerle recalls. "Jim would say, I love the thought of mortars raining down on the Capitol and everybody running to their binoculars and not being able to find me.' "

Critics say Dobson has at times altered his views to help build Focus. In early editions of his book "The Strong-Willed Child," he opposed abortion "for reasons other than rape, incest, or factors relating to the health of the mother and child." He said he would abort a fetus rather than lose his wife. Later editions reflect Dobson's current position -- absolute opposition to any abortion.

Dobson and his friends describe his motives differently. Bauer says Dobson became involved in politics only "defensively, when he saw government destroying the family."

"With Dr. Dobson, what you see is what you get," says Rabbi Howard Hirsch of Temple Shalom in Colorado Springs, who has worked with Dobson in interfaith efforts. "Whatever political agenda he may have, it's because of his religion. He's really trying to protect the family."

The road from academia to national influence began with a simple message -- wives ought to serve husbands, children must obey parents, and parents should shower their kids with love and a sense of limits.

At a doctor's office in Manassas, Focus pamphlets and magazines are spread liberally around the waiting room and examination areas -- and patients snap them up.

"What he talks about in child-rearing just makes a lot of sense, and it works," Dr. Vincent Buchinsky says. Advice brings people into the Focus family. The rest will follow.

"In scheduling our radio broadcasts, we select highly practical topics that will interest people with no particular Christian commitment," Dobson has written. "Tucked within these discussions are elements of what we believe, although the presentation is subtle and inoffensive. Then, about every three weeks, we typically schedule what is called a harvest program,' which focuses on a testimony or dramatic story of personal conversion."

The three buildings high on a hill in Colorado Springs are dedicated to planting the seeds of conversion. If Nordstrom or L.L. Bean were to branch out into selling the Word, their operations might look something like the Constituent Services Building at Focus on the Family.

Here, hundreds of operators, most of them women -- each of whom signed a profession of faith in Jesus -- wear phone headsets and sit poised over computer monitors, processing 10,000 letters a day whose orders for Focus products will be filled within three days, 3,500 phone calls that will be answered within 30 seconds. There are 6,000 items in the Focus warehouse -- books with titles such as "Someone I Love Is Gay" and "The Cheapskate Monthly Money Makeovers," how-to guides such as "Internet for Christians," brochures on how to fight against sex ed courses in public schools.

About one in 10 letters gets passed on from the merchandise area to the Correspondence Center, where 120 CAs (correspondence assistants) sit at terminals crafting responses from a computer system containing virtually every word Dobson has uttered.

"We're hearing increasingly about child abuse, wife abuse, satanic cult involvement, divorce, severe depression, rape, incest," Dobson says. "Those kinds of problems that were fairly rare when we started in 1977 are very, very common today. You can almost watch the unraveling of the social order in the mail and telephone calls that we receive."

Most letters are from women, and the hot topics are divorce, infidelity and problems with teenagers. Focus surveys find that the typical Dobson listener is a woman, aged 25 to 40, with a year or more of college and at least two children.

CA Neil Trainer is writing to a California woman who asked for a cassette of Dobson's advice to the seriously ill. Her letter mentions life-threatening cancer, so Trainer types her name and problem on a sheet that will be passed around the Focus staff. A staff devotional might be dedicated to the woman, or "if it's a particularly confidential topic, someone will pray at their desk and then circle Done' on the sheet," explains supervisor John Vose.

A CA types in a key phrase, such as "Is the Easter Bunny Real?" or "Spouse Died of AIDS," and Dobson's words appear on the screen, along with suggested sections of a letter. "We were saddened to hear of the death of your {INSERT name or title}," one reads. "We want to assure you that God loves you very much."

CAs, many of whom have training in counseling, education or journalism, can refer callers to Focus's staff of chaplains, to Christian therapists in their home towns, or -- when letters or calls suggest a dire situation -- immediately pass the constituent to one of 18 state-licensed therapists down the hall.

There, psychologist Phil Swihart and his staff deal with potential suicides, severe eating disorders, drug problems and other cases of despair. While Swihart helps a New Hampshire man find a residential program for alcoholics, therapist Glenn Lutjens comforts a man longing for a reconciliation with his estranged wife. At the end of a 25-minute call, the two pray together.

The Focus budget includes $1.9 million annually for grants to constituents in need. A letter from a woman whose husband left her suddenly mentions that she is on the verge of losing her apartment. She might be answered with a rent check -- and a call to a local church asking that a pastor follow the case.

No CA ever asks for money. "While others send you junk mail crying, If you don't send $50, we'll go out of business,' we focus on meeting needs, on the belief that, if you do that, people will reciprocate," Hetrick says. (Focus spends 4 percent of its receipts on fund-raising and 10 percent on administration, among the lowest such figures in the U.S. charity business.)

Focus managers say scrupulous attention to customer satisfaction drives the operation's growth, which has been nothing short of explosive -- from 300 employees in 1982 to more than 1,200 today, from a couple of dozen radio stations in the late 1970s to 1,600 today. (Focus is heard on five Washington stations, including WAVA-FM {105.1}, which airs the program four times daily.)

The show is the second most widely syndicated program in America, after "Paul Harvey News." Dobson's 90-second commentaries for secular radio are heard on 1,034 stations.

Focus has its own publishing house, a church bulletin inserted monthly into 3.5 million bulletins in U.S. houses of worship, a magazine for teachers, another for physicians, a mass-market monthly for single parents and stylish slicks for children. It runs basketball camps in nine cities for single mothers and their teen sons.

Focus videos -- including "Sex, Lies and the Truth," a pro-abstinence, anti-safe sex tape featuring pitcher Orel Hershiser and football star-turned-congressman Steve Largent (R-Okla.) -- are now shown in more public schools than churches. The "Sex, Lies" tape alone has been purchased by more than 11,000 public schools. More than 6 million public school students have seen at least one Focus video.

Last year, the Fairfax County School Board voted to remove "Sex, Lies" from its curriculum after some board members argued that the tape was racially offensive, implying that black students are more likely than whites to have premarital sex. The board acted despite a Focus lobbying campaign that included radio broadcasts, a fax campaign and a nationwide telephone hot line. After losing the vote, Focus spent $18,000 to air the tape on Washington's Channel 20.

Dobson says his next goals are to create "winsome" antiabortion and pro-abstinence TV commercials and send Focus advice kits to every one of the 3.8 million American homes each year that welcome a newborn baby, every one of the 2.4 million couples who marry, and every one of the 800,000 new widows and widowers. What's His Mission?

Dobson's insistence that public policy is a tiny, almost insignificant part of his work has led his critics to accuse him of running a stealth campaign to impose a Christian agenda on the nation.

"Dobson takes grotesque advantage of the fact that most people go to him for advice on how to raise their family," says Barry Lynn, who runs Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "If you call up one of his spiritual counselors, they'll tell you about Dr. Dobson's opposition to divorce, and then they put you on a mailing list for very political messages. This is a deliberate scheme to take those who come to him for grief counseling and turn them into political activists."

"They say they're not political," says Matt Freeman, research director at the liberal People for the American Way, "but somehow they have these political affiliates out there doing voter's guides and political training sessions."

Dobson delegates much of his political groundwork to affiliates -- the Family Research Council (legally independent of Focus since 1991), and, most important, a network of Family Policy Councils in more than 30 states. Although the state councils are independent, Focus distributes their literature tucked inside Dobson's monthly letters, and Focus employees travel around the country to lead Community Impact Seminars -- training sessions that "teach believers how to use compassionate, principled persuasion to influence those around us."

The seminars instruct activists on how to speak to secular audiences, particularly on controversial topics such as whether America is a "Christian nation."

Focus stays out of partisan races, but often plays a direct role on legislative issues and local campaigns. In 1994, when Idahoans voted on an initiative to ban "special rights" for homosexuals, Dobson wrote a "Letter to the Citizens of Idaho" urging a yes vote.

Dobson laughs at the idea that the religious right wields power. He calls Christians an oppressed people, arguing that real power lies in the hands of "secular humanists."

"The news media, the entertainment industry, the professions, American Bar Association, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, and the Congress, the judiciary -- the centers of power are held by those with a secular humanistic point of view," he says. "There are only two power centers that conservative Christians hold -- the church and the family. And both of those are under severe attack."

In the chapelteria on the Focus campus, executives point to cathedral windows that were shattered by homosexual activists opposed to Focus's support of an anti-gay rights amendment in Colorado. "We've had bomb threats, we had bricks thrown through a window in our bookstore," Hetrick says. "Still, we bear the brunt of being called war-mongering haters. Which way is the hate flowing?" Which Path to Salvation?

Focus's emphasis on reinstilling Christian values through government has prompted conservative columnist Cal Thomas to wonder whether Dobson and other religious leaders "are seeking a shortcut to righteousness, preferring the way of government to the way of its savior. Jesus said, My kingdom is not of this world.' The kingdom of God is not going to arrive aboard Air Force One."

Thomas is a Dobson fan, a believer. But Thomas no longer shares the confidence of some on the religious right that "if we won't be constrained by God's word, we have to be restrained by government. After 12 years of Reagan and Bush, do we have fewer abortions, less crime? Of course not."

Dobson is under no illusion that he has won over a majority of the American people, or that he is likely to do so anytime soon.

He is the first to produce polling numbers showing that evangelical Christians "have about the same divorce rate as people who don't. Their kids have just about as many adolescent problems. They have, unbelievably, about the same perspective on the existence of absolute truth. Over 60 percent of evangelical Christians reject the notion of absolute truth."

Despite the certainty of his message, Dobson is pessimistic about the future. "I do not foresee any scenario through which our social problems and our family moral ills will be cured," he says. "There is no way those who hold the views I hold will prevail against the power structure today. The only way that will occur is if the church awakens."

For that cause, Dobson told an audience of religious broadcasters two years ago, his voice breaking, "I'm prepared to pay with my life." The Pilgrimage

At the Welcome Center, women in long dresses and men in suits greet each tourist with smiles and name tags. In the summertime, 2,000 visitors daily arrive to see Dobson's studio. They watch videos about Dobson, and take the kids to Whit's End, an old-fashioned pink ice cream parlor where Whit -- a lovable character children know from Focus adventure videos -- supposedly hangs out.

"Whit's on a missionary trip in Israel," fresh-faced kids behind the counter tell visitors, but an ice cream cone salves the disappointment.

Peggie and Gordon Hopple of Mechanicsburg, Pa., were on vacation in Colorado and they knew they had to visit Dobson. "We listen to him on the radio all the time," says Peggie Hopple, a cashier at an elementary school. "He has such good moral values."

Gordon Hopple particularly loves Focus's "Odyssey" radio dramas. Peggie buys Focus books and tapes for her grandchildren, and listens to Dobson's advice on marriage and child-rearing.

And when it comes to politics, well, says Gordon, "Dr. Dobson is just more up on political things than we are. When he says something has to be done, we take his word." CAPTION: Radio counselor and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson says "multiple millions of Americans out there {are} very concerned about what they consider to be a moral free fall." CAPTION: Gary Bauer heads the Family Research Council, a Washington-based arm of the Focus empire. CAPTION: From the Focus on the Family complex in Colorado Springs, employees answer thousands of letters and phone calls. CAPTION: Visitors to the headquarters can cool off at Whit's End, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor named after a character from Focus's children's videos.