With the next deadline in the Elian Gonzalez saga just two days away, President Clinton on Sunday held out hope for "a principled resolution" to the case that might avoid "a train wreck" for the 6-year-old boy and the legal process.
Clinton, who has spoken in public only briefly about the controversy over whether Elian should be returned to Cuba and the custody of his father, said that despite the inflamed rhetoric in recent days, he thinks many people on both sides of the issue have the boy's best interests at heart.
"It is that reality that gives me hope we can find a principled resolution that is not just a train wreck for the child, a train wreck for the rule of law or a train wreck for all concerned," Clinton told reporters aboard Air Force One as he began a two-day trip to Las Vegas and California for fund-raising, golf and an economic speech.
"We'll see," he said. "I'm hopeful."
An attorney for the boy's Miami relatives, who are fighting to keep him in the United States, appeared to move somewhat closer Sunday to agreeing to U.S. demands for resolving the case amicably. But the attorney, Manny Diaz, spoke with guarded optimism, reiterating the relatives' charges that the government is placing undue pressure on them.
"Unfortunately, we keep getting pressure, we keep getting deadlines. We don't understand the need for those deadlines," Diaz said in an appearance Sunday on ABC-TV's "This Week."
Deadlocked negotiations between the Miami relatives and the U.S. government are scheduled to resume today, with the Justice Department threatening to impose a Tuesday deadline for revoking Elian's temporary status in this country if certain demands are not met.
Among those demands is a pledge by the Miami relatives that they will relinquish custody of the boy once their appeals in federal court, now scheduled to run at least through May, are exhausted.
Elian has been in Miami since November, when he was pulled from the sea by fishermen, one of three survivors of an ocean crossing from Cuba in which his mother and 10 other would-be refugees drowned. Since then, he has become the center of an increasingly bitter and political struggle over whether he should be returned to Cuba and the custody of his father or remain in the United States with other relatives.
The Miami relatives, buoyed by a groundswell of support from the Cuban American community in Florida, have struck an increasingly defiant tone in recent days. They suggested at one point that they would not turn Elian over to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, even if the father gets a visa and comes to the United States as planned.
But Diaz appeared to take a more conciliatory approach Sunday.
Asked whether the relatives would formally pledge to turn over Elian if their appeals fail, Diaz said: "Oh, absolutely. They have always--they have proffered that to the government. . . . They are willing to sign a statement that says they will abide by the laws of this country."
Diaz said that "if the INS shows up tomorrow morning to their house and says, 'We are here, we have revoked the parole, we are here to take Elian with us,' they will of course comply with that mandate."
But when pressed on exactly what type of commitment the family would agree to make to resolve the case, Diaz appeared to back away, repeating the family's demand that a psychiatrist be allowed to evaluate Elian first.
"This is a human being who has suffered tremendous psychological trauma and, we are told, will suffer further irreversible trauma if . . . there is a transfer to his father," he said.
Meanwhile in Cuba, President Fidel Castro said Sunday that Elian's father was ready to fly to the United States "absolutely alone" today but only if he could take his son home with him immediately.
If this condition is not accepted by Washington, Castro said, Cuba will continue to insist on an earlier proposal: that a group including doctors and some of Elian's Cuban schoolmates accompany the father on a trip to take custody of the boy.
As they enter today's negotiations, U.S. authorities say they have become wary of the relatives' frequent and abrupt changes in position.
"The whole reason for these discussions is to nail down an understanding of how this will work out," a Justice Department official who asked not to be identified said Sunday.
The official said that while Diaz continued to insist Sunday that the relatives will abide by the law, "we don't know what that means for them."
Meanwhile, the political heat generated by the international custody case intensified Sunday, with most of the attention directed at Vice President Al Gore.
The presumptive Democratic nominee for president broke with the Clinton administration last week in announcing his support for a bill in Congress that would grant Elian and his father permanent residency status in the United States.
White House Chief of Staff John Podesta sought to downplay Gore's break, calling it "an honest disagreement" over administration policy.
"I think that what he is trying to do is what we are all trying to do, which is, again, trying to get this resolved in a forum and a manner, which de-escalates it and which considers the interests of the child," said Podesta, appearing on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation."
But other Democrats were less compassionate, chiding Gore for what they say is a bald political attempt to generate votes in Florida's Cuban American community.
"It's hard to resist the politics of Florida in an election year," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) on a "This Week" appearance. "Make no mistake about it. If this kid came from Haiti or another part of the Caribbean, or China, we would not even be talking about it. The kid would have returned home to his surviving parents."
Among those speaking out against Gore's stance is First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, running for the U.S. Senate in New York. She came out Saturday against the congressional intervention now favored by Gore. "Elian's future should be determined as quickly as possible through the appropriate, ongoing legal process," her spokesman said.
Clinton, in his comments aboard Air Force One, did not refer specifically to the positions of either Gore or his wife on the Elian controversy. But he stressed that the issue should be seen as more than simply a political clash between the United States and Cuba.
"It is seen largely now as a political story. I don't agree with that. I think it's a more complex and difficult issue than is being presented," he said.
"All of us should want what is best for the young man who has been on an unimaginable roller coaster. Obviously, we have to do that within the framework of the law," he said. "It's not as stark and simple and political as is being presented . . . I think all of the people with any responsibility for it are trying to find a principled solution."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.