MIAMI — As federal agents moved in to take Elian Gonzalez, Ramon Saul Sanchez threw himself in their path and took a rifle butt in the head.

He got up, wrapped a bandage around his bloodied head and continued his work — soothing an angry crowd, focusing their rage while imploring them to protest without violence.

Sanchez, an office clerk and street activist known more for organizing traffic slowdowns than political muscle, emerged during the Elian standoff as one of the most visible Cuban exile leaders in the most Cuban of American cities.

Whether he will hold onto that power is an intriguing question. With no single, influential leader and a three-year power vacuum, Cuban-American leaders now have a decisive moment to shape their political future — and that of the community.

Leaders of the community — Sanchez, of the Democracy Movement; Jorge Mas Santos, of the influential Cuban American National Foundation; elected officials of Cuban descent; aging former political prisoners, and veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion — all embraced the Elian struggle, reinvigorating the exiles' 41-year-old conflict with Fidel Castro.

"As the Bay of Pigs shaped a whole generation and influenced Cuban-American politics from 1961 to 2000, this raid will influence Cuban-American politics for the next generation," said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University in Miami.

"The real new leaders that are emerging are in many ways even more hard line than the people they are replacing."

Cuban exiles saw Elian's plight as a symbol of their suffering under Castro. Their passion drove many to 24-hour vigils and sent hundreds out in protest after the boy was snatched by federal agents.

Their fervor was not shared by most other Americans, however. Polls show most people nationwide saw not a political tug-of-war but a small boy being kept from his father. To them, Castro and Communism seem Cold War relics.

"This community is reminding me more and more of the National Rifle Association," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "They are viewed as shrill and rigid even as their members are becoming more united."

Cuban-Americans hold extraordinary power in Florida, a key state in national politics. With a dense, unified vote, they help shape policy on the issue that matters most here: Cuba.

The influential Cuban American National Foundation was founded by Jorge Mas Canosa, whose death in 1997 left the power vacuum. Along with leading old-guard groups like Brigade 2506 — veterans of the Bay of Pigs fiasco — CANF is a stalwart proponent of the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba.

Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, said Mas Canosa, father of Jorge Mas Santos, combined the business community and the street.

"I don't think he has really been replaced," Perez said.

Filling the void are several groups with often strongly different views on U.S.-Cuba policy, protest methods and influence. A minority seeks an open dialogue with the Castro regime.

"I believe the Cuban exile community has always rallied for just causes," said Sylvia Iriondo, who organized daily prayer vigils outside the home of Elian's relatives.

Now they are also seizing the chance to lobby, and encourage Cuban-Americans to vote against Vice President Al Gore in November, stop traveling to Cuba and limit how much money they send to relatives there.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and Miami Mayor Joe Carollo also took prominent roles in the Elian struggle and aftermath.

Carollo lashed out at the Cuban and U.S. governments alike, then railed at his own police chief for helping with the federal raid. Penelas said U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton would be held responsible for any bloodshed.

As fires erupted on the streets of Little Havana on Saturday, they called for calm while many other Cuban-Americans, furious over the surprise raid and the police response to the day's protests, heaped blame on the mayors.

Then there is Sanchez. Not a supporter of the U.S. embargo on Cuba — unlike the CANF and many old-guard exile groups — his profile has risen during the Elian crisis.

"Sanchez is sort of setting the tone for the new leadership in the Cuban-American community," Moreno said.

Sanchez, once a hardline militant who turned to nonviolent protest, drew hundreds to his brand of protest while Mas Santos went to Washington and failed to negotiate a handover, Moreno said.

"(Mas Santos) was unable to deliver, and Ramon Saul Sanchez has had a consistent position, has been able to control the protests," he said.

Sanchez has called for a general strike and rally Tuesday, but it's unclear how influential he will remain without Elian's presence.

"At the end of the road, there will be, unfortunately, some political casualties," said Sanchez. "At the same time, it will provide the opportunity to refresh the leadership and the position of the exile community in the years to come."