- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Vice President Al Gore, tossed in the choppy waters of Florida politics, said yesterday that Juan Miguel Gonzalez should get to take his son, Elian, to Cuba if he makes the request "on free soil" in the United States.

"If the father says on free soil that he believes the son should go back to Cuba with him, that, of course, is likely to be determinative and will be determinative," he said on NBC's "Today" show.

"But he has to be allowed to say that free of the intimidation" by Fidel Castro's communist regime.

Mr. Gore, eyeing Florida's 25 electoral votes, broke with President Clinton last week and endorsed a bill that would give the boy and six of his relatives permanent resident status.

Mr. Gore had said a family court, not the administration, should rule on the boy's best interests.

"So much for his interest in legislation," said Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, about Mr. Gore's comments. "It sounds like the vice president is not very committed to the policy he announced with much fanfare just last week."

Mr. Gore still favors the legislation, Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway said.

"This is a custody matter that should be handled in a family court," Mr. Hattaway said. "Providing permanent residency status" through legislation "would help make that happen," because it would enable the boy's father "to speak his mind freely."

The vice president's real problem in South Florida is "a suspicion that this is pandering and cheap political talk," said Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University in Miami.

"If the vice president, who has been extremely loyal to Clinton," cannot alter the president's views or those of Attorney General Janet Reno, many Cuban-Americans suspect "he's either ineffective as a politician, or he is not sincere in his words," Mr. Moreno said.

Mr. Gore's break had led to angry rebukes from Democrats such as Reps. Maxine Waters of California and Charles B. Rangel of New York, who note that refugees often are sent back to Haiti.

Mrs. Waters, on CNN, had vowed to reconsider her endorsement of Mr. Gore. Mr. Rangel said the vice president's switch was political.

Mrs. Waters said in a telephone interview that she will continue to support Mr. Gore, but she believes a custody proceeding is unnecessary.

"My position is unequivocal that [Elian] should be returned to his father whether he comes here or not," Mrs. Waters said.

"This is an immigration case, not a custody case. If the father comes here, there should be nothing that stops him from taking the child."

The votes of Florida's 800,000 Cuban-Americans could be pivotal in a presidential contest that has become a dead heat. Mr. Bush, whose brother Jeb is governor of Florida, is counting on a win there to offset Mr. Gore's strength in California and New York.

Nationally, Mr. Bush led Mr. Gore 46 percent to 45 percent in a USA Today/Gallup/CNN poll released yesterday. Mr. Gore led 49 to 41 percent among women, while Mr. Bush was leading by 50 percent to 40 percent among men.

Mr. Gore, hoping to solidify his female support, yesterday announced a plan to end the "motherhood penalty," by giving parents five years of Social Security credit to stay home with children.

Mr. Gore told NBC that "the presumption from the beginning" was that Elian belongs with his father.

"Nobody from the start has disputed the fact that this child eventually ought to go back with the father if that is what is clearly decided is in the best interest of the child," Mr. Gore said.

Sen. Connie Mack, Florida Republican, said Mr. Gore's rebuke of Mr. Clinton's position had been helpful, but he challenged the vice president to "go one step further and ask the president and attorney general to back off from their strong-arm tactics."

"The way this administration has handled this is flaming and fanning the fires of discontent by limiting and cutting off their legal rights," Mr. Mack said.

"That's a terrible thing," he said.

Mr. Mack said the boy's Florida relatives have suggested an independent board of three psychiatrists evaluate the boy and recommend whether he should return to his father in Cuba.

The family has said it would abide by the panel's ruling. Mr. Mack said the Senate would consider a non-binding resolution urging the government to accept the family's offer.

• Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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