It made for great TV. There was Maxine Waters, an outspoken member of the congressional Black Caucus, live on CNN defending the Clinton Administration's efforts to return Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba. Suddenly, on air, Waters learned that Al Gore had come out in support of the Cuban exiles who are trying to keep Elian in Miami. Waters exploded, saying she would "rethink" her endorsement of the Vice President. The next morning, Gore phoned Waters to make peace. It seemed to help. "He apologized profusely," she recalled. "We disagree, but I think he's sincere."
For Gore, the Waters debacle was a reminder of the perils of ethnic politics. The Vice President's decision to align himself with Cuban-American voters may have helped his chances of carrying Florida, but the move has Gore's black allies shaking their heads. "This was purely a political decision catering to the Cuban Americans in Miami," says Congressman Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat who represents Harlem.
What has Rangel and other African Americans so miffed is that refugees from Haiti and other countries are routinely deported, while those from Cuba get special consideration. Congressman Alcee Hastings, who represents a predominantly black district in Florida, says he will propose legislation granting residency status to a six-year-old Haitian girl.
In 1996 Clinton and Gore carried 40% of Florida's Hispanics--a showing that helped the ticket win the state. Gore's new posture may help him repeat the success. But what pleases one constituency often ends up alienating another.
--By Matthew Cooper and John Dickerson/Washington