Al's Florida Spring Break With Clinton

Florida is an alluring spot on Al Gore's 2000 political map. Only Texas, New York and California offer a bigger November payoff than its 25 electoral votes. Bill Clinton broke a longtime Republican lock on the state in 1996, and polls show Gore within striking distance or slightly ahead of George W. Bush. At the very least, Goreheads hope that a big push in Florida will force W to spend more time and money than he wants to in a place where brother Jeb is the governor. That was clearly part of the calculus last Thursday morning when Gore chief of staff Charles Burson phoned John Podesta, his counterpart in the president's office. Burson told him that later in the day Gore would break sharply with the administration's position on Elian Gonzalez and endorse legislation that would allow the boy to remain in this country while the courts resolved his custody case. Gore had been leaning in that direction for weeks, but the move put him squarely on the side of the state's powerful Cuban-American community.

Gore's attempt to play ethnic politics has angered allies and bewildered some strategists. While it is true that Florida's Cuban-Americans are no longer an automatic Republican vote (Clinton won 40 percent in 1996), many Democrats give the vice president little chance of winning over a group that has grown increasingly disenchanted with what it regards as the administration's soft-line toward Havana in recent years. And although Cuban-Americans dominate Miami politics, the statewide picture is quite different. Gore's split with Clinton risks alienating non-Hispanic whites, non-Cuban Hispanics and African-Americans, many of whom are either indifferent to the whole matter or believe that Gonzalez should be reunited with his father. Scathing reaction to Gore's decision from important congressional figures like California Rep. Maxine Waters and New York Rep. Jose Serrano is certain to resonate in Florida. Serrano said his Bronx district office is routinely visited by immigrants seeking the same resident status Gore now seeks for Gonzalez and his family. "For the sake of votes in Florida," Serrano wrote to Gore, "votes that already belong to Governor Bush, you have angered Latinos and African-Americans, including many members of Congress."

But others in the Gore camp say these groups have nowhere else to go in November, and that lining up with Cuban-Americans is still his best chance to win Florida. "When they go in and snatch the kid and the video is played over and over again, where do you want to see Gore," said one well-connected Florida Democrat. "Defending it or being against it?"

The Gonzalez affair also gives Gore another high-profile opportunity: to show that he is his own man, and not merely Clinton's dutiful number two. "Pulling the sword from the stone," one former top Gore aide likes to call it. Aides said last week that Clinton understood Gore's gambit. But other attempts at distancing have caused tensions in the West Wing. Clinton was furious last year after Gore kicked off his campaign by condemning his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Podesta was enraged last fall when Gore failed to give a heads-up before cutting a television ad denouncing Senate Republicans for scuttling the nuclear-test-ban treaty. He retaliated by temporarily barring Gore aides from his senior-staff meetings. This time, Podesta was in the loop. But Gore may end up wishing he'd kept this sword buried in the rock.

Al's Florida Spring Break With Clinton | News