WASHINGTON -- Americans, whose suspicions of government date back to the Boston Tea Party, don't like people breaking down their doors -- whether they're wearing British red coats or green INS flak jackets.

At the same time, most Americans did favor reuniting young Elian Gonzalez with his father in what has become the custody battle heard round the world.It is this clash of perceptions that is now playing out on Capitol Hill, in the streets of Miami, and in living rooms across America as the moral and legal questions surrounding the case are transformed into a major political fight.

Some Republicans in Congress, furious over what they see as federal authorities' use of excessive force in taking the boy from his Miami relatives, want a formal investigation into the raid. But it remains to be seen if they can take the underlying issue -- whether the force was justified -- and ignite widespread indignation directed at Democrats in general and the Clinton administration in particular.

Even many GOP strategists see risks in pushing an inquiry too far.

"Republicans are better off not paying too much attention to it," says Sal Russo, a GOP consultant in California. "Most Americans see this as a family issue, unhappy with the way it proceeded but happy with reuniting the boy and his father."

Attorney General Janet Reno met behind closed doors April 25 with a bipartisan group of senators to defend the way the Immigration and Naturalization Service carried out the predawn raid on Saturday. Ms. Reno has voiced "no regrets whatsoever" about the operation, in which agents extracted the boy at gunpoint.

How far to probe

For Republicans, the question is how far to go in investigating the raid. Many GOP leaders, and a handful of Democrats, believe the Justice Department acted overzealously -- perhaps illegally -- in breaking into the home.

In particular, critics say Reno failed to give third-party mediators enough time to work out an arrangement for a peaceful transfer of the boy to his father. They say, too, that the warrant to enter the Gonzalez home was solely to search, not to seize the child and take him away.

Congressional sources say hearings in some form are expected when Congress returns from its Easter recess. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois has already launched a preliminary investigation to determine if a more formal probe is warranted.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois has called for public hearings. "We are leaving our options open," says a Judiciary Committee staffer.

Still, given the overwhelming support among Americans for reuniting the Cuban boy with his father, a lengthy investigation could backfire.

Holding hearings "would be like sticking your arm in the garbage disposal up to your elbow," says John Zogby, a pollster based in Utica, N.Y. "By a factor of 62 to 30, voters disagree that there should be hearings. There is absolutely, unequivocally no wisdom in holding hearings."

Administration offensive

Sensing the importance of the war of perceptions -- and perhaps that they have the upper hand -- administration officials are going out of their way to defend the weekend raid.

The day after the operation, for example, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder showed up at NBC's "Meet the Press" to tape an interview. Minutes later, he insisted that the tape be scrapped so he could go toe to toe with House whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, who was also appearing on the program, to rebut his statements.

Earlier this week, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart reacted with cool anger to Republican characterization of the operation.

There are "those who very clearly have decided that there are some politics to be played here, some perceived political gain, and they're going to play it," he said, predicting that any congressional hearings would be perceived as Republicans attacking legitimate law enforcement.

Damage done

Indeed, some politicians have already suffered damage from the ordeal -- including Democrats. The issue has hurt Vice President Al Gore, for instance, whose midstream shift in how Elian's case should be handled earned wide disapproval.

"For Gore, some swing voters have real questions about his truthfulness," says Charlie Cook, editor of The Cook Political Report. They think "he's too slick and will say anything to be elected: This went right to the heart of that. He couldn't have handled it any worse."

The fallout has also filtered down to the local level. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) angered many law-enforcement officials by comparing the federal agents who conducted the Little Havana raid to "storm troopers."

Despite continuing protests over the raid, most polls show Americans believe the government was right to remove Elian from his Miami relatives. But they are more ambivalent about the method used.

Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster, says public reaction is divided between those concerned about government intrusion and those relieved that the Miami standoff is over.

"Some people say, 'finally it's over and the administration showed a little grit,' " he says.