Raid condemned by the party of family values

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Leading Republicans and the relatives who had been looking after Elian Gonzalez fiercely denounced the Clinton administration yesterday for using force to remove the Cuban child from the relatives' house in Miami.

But American public opinion remained staunchly behind the decision to reunite Elian with his father, and the long-term political fall-out for the Clinton administration, in particular for the Attorney General, Janet Reno, who authorised Saturday's pre-dawn raid, looked more positive than negative.

The fact that the child was recovered, that no shots were fired and no one was seriously hurt was a victory for the administration, alloyed only by the existence of a photograph juxtaposing a federal agent armed with a sub-machine-gun and a scared child.

Before the raid, the main criticism of Ms Reno was that she was too hesitant about using force to return Elian to his father. By yesterday, the complaints of prevarication had faded, to be replaced by a different question: was it really necessary to use this degree of force to reclaim a six-year-old?

With some misgivings, the majority of non-Cuban Americans and certainly a majority of Democrats appeared to accept that it was. The Clinton administration was even able to steal a march on Republicans by projecting itself as the defender of family values.

Just as the fate of Elian himself divided political establishment along party lines, so did the armed raid. Ever more irate Republicans condemned the action. Expressing a common sentiment,the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, said his first thought was that such things "only happened in Castro's Cuba".

The political capital their stand will bring them outside the virulently anti-communist right of the party is doubtful, however. Many mainstream Republican voters were uncomfortably straddled between their belief in the primacy of family ties and their espousal of political freedom. The Republican presidential nominee, George W. Bush, said that Elian should on no account be returned to Cuba. If his father came to live in the United States, that would be the best solution; if not, Elian should stay in Miami. Mr Bush condemned the use of force, cementing his prospects with the mainly Republican-voting Florida Cubans, and then kept his counsel.

If the Elian affair has been good for the Clinton administration and mostly neutral for Republican politicians, there is one politician who could well be damaged: Vice-President Al Gore. He split from the Clinton-Reno stand on the primacy of the father's rights early on, suggesting that the matter would be best solve through negotiation and a family court. At one point he even advocated permanent residency in the United States for Elian.

American commentators remain ambivalent about whether Mr Gore's call for a family court ruling was his own sincerely held belief, or whether it reflected cynical political expediency. Whatever the truth, opinion polls suggest Mr Gore has lost out. More voters than before now doubt his sincerity. The administration's official support of the use of force will alienate any wavering Florida Cubans and consolidate Democratic voters' support behind the primacy of family ties, something Mr Gore called into question.

If the subject of Elian is kept out of the pre-election debates, Mr Gore may be considered far-sighted, but by then the harm could have been done.