WASHINGTON -- Al Gore is moving to please voter constituencies he'll need to win the presidency, whether that means breaking with the White House over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez or shifting positions to court homosexuals, labor groups, blacks and women.
On Friday, Republican George W. Bush challenged his Democratic rival to prove he's ''not playing Florida politics'' in the case of the Cuban boy caught at the center of a U.S.-Cuba custody battle.
Political analysts are divided over whether the vice president's conversions weaken his credibility or help him establish his own identity apart from President Clinton.
''It certainly feeds a pre-existing impression that many people have, that electoral politics play a critical part in all of his calculations,'' said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
''This was the guy who gave up the white shirt and the red tie for earth tones,'' he added. ''All politicians trim and tack here and there, but some get tagged with being calculating politicians.''
Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, thinks the Gonzalez case in particular shows that Gore is a cunning candidate.
''I think what he's trying to do is show he's a bold leader and he will do what he thinks is right, which to him may have the happy result of winning votes or at least neutralizing the opposition of others,'' Black said.
On Thursday, Gore broke with the administration by saying that he supported legislation that would grant Elian Gonzalez and his Cuban relatives permanent U.S. residency. He also wants the case heard in a family court, not decided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The administration argues that Elian should be taken from his Miami relatives and reunited with his Cuban father. That position has enraged Cuban Americans in South Florida -- and Bush.
''If the vice president is serious and not playing Florida politics, he ought to stand up and say to the attorney general, 'You've got the power to back the INS off so that the fate of this young man will not be determined by bureaucratic decree,''' Bush told reporters while campaigning in Wisconsin.
With 25 electoral votes, Florida is the fourth-biggest prize in November's general election. The state generally votes Republican in presidential elections, but Clinton won it in a three-way race in 1996, gaining 40 percent of the Cuban-American vote.
Gore, who runs strong among Florida's seniors, hopes to win enough of the Cuban-American vote as well to threaten Bush with a loss in a state that's run by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.
Bush, the governor of Texas, gets indignant when asked about Gore's changing positions.
''This man will say anything to get elected,'' is his constant refrain.
That echos the sentiments of Bill Bradley during the Democratic primary campaign.
''He claims these issues are priorities for him,'' Bradley said of Gore in February, after he accused his rival of trying to co-opt his positions. ''But priorities come from convictions, not through polls.''
Some examples of the vice president's shifts:
--During a January debate, Gore courted homosexuals by saying he would require that his appointees to the Joint Chiefs of Staff agree that gays be allowed to serve openly in the military. When that triggered criticism, Gore backpedaled, saying, ''I did not mean to imply that there should ever be any kind of inquiry into the personal political opinions of officers in the U.S. military.''
--Meeting privately with AFL-CIO officials in mid-February, Gore reportedly told the union bosses that, if elected, he could negotiate a better trade deal with the Chinese than the administration on the issues of environmental and working conditions. When a business group complained to the White House, Gore issued a statement saying he stood behind the administration's landmark agreement to permit China enter the World Trade Organization.
--Speaking to Jewish leaders in New York in early March, Gore hinted he would support moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite Palestinian opposition. ''My desires are the same as your desires,'' he said. Gore also has met with Al Sharpton, a black leader in the state.
--Several days later, Gore bid for supporters of former presidential candidate John McCain by pledging to make the Arizona senator's signature issue -- campaign finance reform -- his own political centerpiece. The vice president said he had learned from the ''mistakes'' he made raising money during the 1996 presidential election.
--Last fall, Gore even moved his campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville, Tenn., after Bradley posed serious competition. The vice president also swapped his conservative business suits for a new look of earth-toned sports coats and slacks.
The Clinton administration has greeted Gore's campaign moves with understanding.
Even though Gore broke with Clinton on the Gonzalez case, White House spokesman Jake Siewert said the president was not angry. Such differences, Siewert said, should be expected as Gore's campaign unfolds. ''His office spoke to the chief of staff's office,'' Siewert said, ''and we let the president know.''
Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said the Gonzalez decision ''was a tough political call,'' but it was consistent with the vice president's long-held belief that the case should be resolved in the courts.
''He'll make his stands when he thinks it's the right thing to do, whether or not it pleases everybody,'' Hattaway said. ''I don't buy this line of argument from political opponents.''
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