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Clinton on fast track through state

President Clinton opened a weekend trip to Florida on Friday with a visit to schoolchildren, a talk with business leaders, a little golf and a lot of fund raising for the Democratic Party.

This morning, both Clinton and Vice President Al Gore will attend an unprecedented $50,000-a-couple "retreat" for donors to the Democratic National Committee at a resort hotel on Amelia Island, near Jacksonville.

For their money, the 75 guests _ 50 donors and about half as many spouses _ will hear from the president and vice president in an intimate setting and take part in a series of issue discussions with White House and party advisers.

Democratic and White House officials strongly defended the event as a legitimate, all-American example of citizens taking part in the political process. They stressed that the entire event is open to the press.

The retreat, held at the Ritz-Carlton, will raise between $2.5-million and $3-million, party spokeswoman Melissa Bonney said. But the party has a debt of $15-million, much of it in legal bills being piled up during a Republican congressional investigation of Democratic fund raising, she said.

"There is no reason to be defensive about supporting the party we believe in," Walter H. Shorenstein, chairman of the retreat, told the guests at a buffet dinner at the hotel Friday evening.

Few if any of the donors were from Florida. The party did not release an official list, but a table bearing their name tags did not reveal any famous guests. The attendees were abuzz Friday night with a rumor that singer Art Garfunkel would attend later in the weekend as a donor.

Clinton began his Florida trip in Palm Beach, arriving two hours late because Air Force One's takeoff was delayed by fog.

At a visit to Palm Beach's port, he urged Congress to give him "fast-track" authority to negotiate future trade agreements. Fast-track authority means the administration would negotiate the details of the deals, and Congress could only approve or disapprove them without rewriting them.

Clinton said his economic strategy had three parts _ balancing the budget, investing in education and promoting trade.

"This strategy is working . . . but it's a three-legged stool _ we have got to have the exports," he said.

In Jupiter, Clinton finally kept a date with the students of Lighthouse Elementary School. He had been scheduled to visit the school in March but injured his knee at the home of professional golfer Greg Norman the night before and had to return to Washington.

Clinton spoke at a luncheon fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee. He played at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens with former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz and Jim Leyland, manager of baseball's champion Marlins. He then attended a fund-raising dinner for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee before flying north to Jacksonville.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.