Janet Reno Takes to Fla. Airwaves.

Saturday July 7 4:04 AM ET

Janet Reno Takes to Fla. Airwaves By KEN THOMAS, Associated Press Writer

MIAMI (AP) - In South Florida, ground zero for people who believe Elian Gonzalez should not have been returned to Cuba, Janet Reno doesn't shy away from defending her decision.

The former attorney general who authorized the boy's seizure has been hitting the radio talk shows, saying she wants to openly discuss the issue and help her hometown move on.

The media tour lets her ``work through the issues in a thoughtful way,'' she said. But it also has another purpose: It gives her a sounding board as she considers a run for Florida governor.

``I want to make sure that I look at the issue and see: Can I be more effective on the inside or the outside?'' she said.

On Thursday, Reno spoke over a light pulsating rumba on WMGE, a ``Jammin' 80s and 70s'' station.

``I have considered every day what I did,'' Reno said. ``And no matter what you think of what I did, you've got to understand that it was for one reason. To be vilified for returning a little boy to his father is not a pleasant circumstance.''

Disc jockey Gino Latino, who thought Reno was wrong to allow Elian's father to take him back to Cuba, offered her a parting gift: a container of milk.

``You see, from 7 years of age in Cuba, children can't drink milk,'' he said on the air. ``When you drink it today maybe you'll think of Elian and you'll consider what you've done.''

Milk is hard to come by in Cuba and has been rationed for young children. Reno said she had to reject the offer because it wasn't skim milk.

``She gets to hear the good, the bad and the ugly,'' said Florida Democratic chairman Bob Poe, a former radio producer.

Reno, a former Miami prosecutor, has spoken on Coral Gables' WQBA, a Cuban-American talk station. She gave interviews on three stations Thursday and appeared on cable TV's MSNBC.

South Florida could be an important constituency in the race, and Elian's case is ingrained in its consciousness.

The boy, then 5, survived a November 1999 ship sinking in which his mother was killed as she attempted to reach the United States. Relatives in Miami fought a seven-month custody battle to keep him, but courts sided with his father. Reno authorized federal agents to seize Elian from the relatives' home, and his father is now raising him in Cuba.

Reno is repeatedly asked about her decision, and her speaking engagements frequently draw protests.

``Elian is imprisoned in Cuba ... how can you say you have no regrets?'' one caller asked Thursday.

Reno's friends say she is not hiding from criticism. She has no aides to schedule her appointments and typically drives to speeches in her red pickup truck.

Reno tells her audiences that whether she runs for governor or not she wants more money for early childhood development, smaller class sizes and better-paid teachers, retraining for workers and respite care for the elderly.

``She wants folks to know that she's not writing off any voters or anyone with concerns with Florida,'' said Hugh Westbrook, CEO of a Miami-based health care corporation and a longtime supporter. ``She isn't afraid to meet with any group or any constituency.''

Republican Gov. Jeb Bush filed this week to seek a second term, and several Democrats have expressed interest in the race.

State Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and Tampa lawyer Bill McBride have both opened campaign accounts. Retiring Ambassador to Vietnam Douglas ``Pete'' Peterson, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, and House Minority Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach are considering runs. Reno hasn't publicly set a deadline for deciding if she'll run.

Some Democrats privately worry that Reno's past and changes to the election calendar could foil their plans of defeating Bush. The Legislature eliminated a primary runoff, meaning a Democratic candidate would only need a plurality to win the nomination.

In a crowded field, analysts say Reno's name recognition could help her win the primary but her politics and past throw into question her ability to attract toss-up voters.

``Eliminating the runoff primary really hurts the Democrats in this particular election,'' said Florida State University political scientist Lance DeHaven-Smith, ``because they'll likely nominate someone who is too liberal for the state.''

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