Bush, Gore Weigh In On Elian

U.S. Marine Cpl. Mark Schumaker of Queensbury, N.Y., wears a joker playing card on his helmet before a patrol in Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, June 26, 2006.
AP Photo/Jacob Silberberg
When a federal judge in Miami upheld U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's authority to decide the fate of Elian Gonzalez, the presidential candidates responded swiftly, indicating how the political fortunes of Al Gore and George W. Bush have become intertwined with the 6-year-old Cuban boy's future.

Gore on Tuesday said, "We still need a full and fair court hearing about what is in the best interest of the child." He blamed Fidel Castro for making the boy choose between "freedom or his father" but stopped short of explicitly saying the boy should return home.

Bush called on Janet Reno to "reconsider her plans to send Elian back to Cuba," but added that a Florida family court should decide what is in the best interest of the child.

The two candidates basically said the same thing. But to Cuban-Americans in South Florida, the vast majority of whom want Elian to remain in the U.S., Gore's comments fell short.

"He has the handicap of being part of the (Clinton) administration," says Nonoska Perez of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). "If he wants to change that perception he must come out more strongly."

Besides acting as spokesperson for CANF, which has been called one of the most effective lobbying groups in Washington, Perez also hosts a daily radio talk show in Miami. She says Cuban-Americans blame Presdient Clinton for what they see as another move to accommodate Fidel Castro.

Instead of offering middle-of-the-road overtures, Perez says Gore must "act in a manner that might make the administration change its position."

Hispanics represent a powerful swing vote in Florida, a valuable electoral state, and Cuban-Americans make up an estimated 70 percent of the state's registered Hispanic voters.

"(Gore) could be hurt by this," says Terry McCoy, a professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. Though Cuban-Americans traditionally vote Republican, McCoy thinks that winning just a third of their vote could make the difference between Gore winning and losing Florida in November.

And votes aren't the only prize at stake. According to a 1997 report by the Center for Public Integrity, CANF poured approximately $3.2 million into the political system in the 15 years following its inception in 1981. In the 1998 election cycle, the group's political action committee, Free Cuba, contributed $102,000 to federal candidates (according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.) That money buys access to both parties. Despite the Republican image of Cuban-Americans, the Free Cuba PAC gave 52 percent of its contributions to Democrats in the last election cycle.

That's why neither party can afford to ignore the conerns of anti-Castro groups, and why the presidential candidates will keep trying to step gingerly around the Elian issue. But that won't be easy if the situation grows more tense in South Florida. Should the Cuban-American community decide to stage major, disruptive protests or worse, try to illegally block Elian's removal, it would mean problems for both candidates.

"If this thing flares up then Bush and Gore will have to take a stand one way or the other (and) alienate someone," says McCoy.