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Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said his understanding was that the decision to send the Cubans back never made it to the president’s desk, but was instead carried out by “midlevel bureaucrats” in the State Department.

“The bottom line is that clearly it was a huge mistake,” the lawmaker said. “Getting assurances from Castro [for the fair treatment of the refugees] is about as reassuring as getting promises from the Iraqi minister of information.

“The fact of the matter is that certain members of the administration, the bureaucracy, actually negotiated the terms of the sentence before there was even a semblance of a trial. I concur with Jeb that it should never have happened,” he said.

The White House gave conflicting answers when asked why the Cubans were returned. Spokesman Scott McClellan said at his daily press briefing yesterday that the president’s policy is “one of a safe, orderly and legal migration.”

The current “wet feet, dry feet” policy stipulates that if Cuban exiles reach U.S. soil, they can apply for asylum, but if they are stopped at sea, they are generally returned to Cuba.

“We expect that policy to be implemented and carried out in a consistent way,” Mr. McClellan said. “But our views and our support for the people of Cuba in their struggle for freedom is very clear.”

Yet asked later in the briefing whether sending the men back to Cuba was consistent with administration policy, Mr. McClellan said: “No. I was informed that’s not the case.”

The Cuban-American vote has proven critical to winning Florida in recent presidential races. President Clinton siphoned off 33 percent of that Republican bloc when he won the state in 1996.

Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore, who carried the baggage of the contentious raid that returned 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, was able to get only 19 percent of the vote in 2000. Just a few percent more would have carried him to the presidency.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and a 2004 presidential candidate, has already touched on this incident to appeal to that constituency. Mr. Gore’s 2000 presidential running mate held a news conference in South Florida earlier this week to declare the repatriation of the Cubans an “abandonment of American values.”

Mr. Bendixen, however, said Democrats are unlikely to cut into the Republicans’ hold on the Cuban-American vote in Florida.

The president is strengthened by the fact that his brother, a fluent speaker of Spanish, is extremely popular in the community. And if the president comes out with a new Cuba policy that pleases those constituents, Mr. Bendixen said, it will go a long way toward healing the political wounds.

“It’s going to take more than one mistake to change that voting pattern,” Mr. Bendixen said. “Yes, it’s a problem, but I wouldn’t go so far to say that the president has a problem that is irreversible.”

Mr. Garcia said the bad feelings won’t subside unless the president gives better than the paltry support for Cuban dissidents he has shown so far in his term.

“Republicans have the House, the Senate and the executive [branch],” Mr. Garcia said. “It’s time for this administration to have a Cuba policy. We put our trust in this administration and we are waiting.”

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