LITTLE ROCK, Ark (AP) -- James Dobson, one of the nation's most prominent evangelical Christian leaders, backed Mike Huckabee's presidential bid Thursday night, giving the former Arkansas governor a long-sought endorsement as the Republican field narrowed to a two-man race.
In a statement first obtained by The Associated Press, Dobson reiterated his declaration on Super Tuesday that he could not in good conscience vote for John McCain, the front-runner, because of concerns over the Arizona senator's conservative credentials.
Dobson said given the situation at that point, he was reluctant to choose between "two pro-family candidates whom I could support" — Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But Dobson wrote that Romney's announcement Thursday that he was suspending his campaign "changed the political landscape."
"The remaining candidate for whom I could vote is Governor Huckabee," Dobson said. "His unwavering positions on the social issues, notably the institution of marriage, the importance of faith and the sanctity of human life, resonate deeply with me and with many others ... Obviously, the governor faces an uphill struggle, given the delegates already committed to Senator McCain. Nevertheless, I believe he is our best remaining choice for president of the United States."
McCain has won more than 707 nominating delegates, more than half the 1,191 needed to win the nomination. Huckabee has 195.
Dobson called Huckabee on Thursday before issuing the endorsement, said Gary Schneeberger, a Dobson spokesman. Dobson's statement said he would "support Governor Huckabee through the remaining primaries," but it wasn't clear whether that meant campaigning for him.
A Huckabee campaign spokeswoman said late Thursday he was unavailable for comment, but confirmed that he and Dobson had spoken.
Huckabee had long sought Dobson's endorsement, believing he is the best fit to advance Dobson's conservative, moral world view. Until now, Dobson had never endorsed a GOP presidential hopeful during the primary campaign.
Throughout what had been an unsettled GOP race, Dobson picked his spots to signal that some candidates simply didn't meet his standards. He ruled out Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and McCain. At one point, Dobson said he'd consider voting for a minor-party candidate if faced with Giuliani as the nominee.
He took on McCain again this week as the Arizona senator widened his already large lead over his GOP opponents.
Dobson criticized McCain for his support of embryonic stem cell research, his opposition to a federal anti-gay marriage amendment and for his temper and use of foul language. He said he'd sit out the presidential election if McCain were the nominee.
Dobson is easily the biggest-name evangelical endorsement Huckabee has earned. Other movement leaders have shied from Huckabee either because of his lack of money, support for expanding the evangelical agenda to include the environment and poverty, as well economic and tax positions that fiscal conservatives have attacked.
John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said Dobson's endorsement can help Huckabee in upcoming Southern states — Louisiana votes Saturday — but not change the belief that Huckabee's support is confined to social conservatives.
"It is rather late in the game," Green said. "But Dr. Dobson is well known for sticking to his guns. It doesn't surprise me this late in the game he would make an announcement like this because it fits in well with what he's been saying. He really doesn't want a moderate Republican nominee, he wants a conservative."
Dobson emphasizes that when he endorses candidates, he is doing so as a private citizen and not as a representative of Focus on the Family, a tax-exempt organization he founded. His endorsement of Huckabee was to be e-mailed to 110,000 people through Focus on the Family Action, a separate entity that is allowed to be more politically active, Schneeberger said.