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Democrats revel in wealth for the cause

What's the difference between $3-million of Republican money and $3-million of Democratic money?

That's easy, say the organizers of a posh, $50,000-a-couple weekend retreat here in which Democratic donors get to meet and socialize with President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

Republicans, according to the Democrats, reward their donors with special favors, such as a $50-billion tax break for the tobacco industry that sneaked through Congress.

Democratic donors insist that in contrast, they are here because they care about unselfish issues such as education and children.

That was the defense Saturday as the Democrats invited in the media to observe an extremely public day of meetings, issue discussions, recreation and hobnobbing at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, near Jacksonville.

"This," boasted Roy Romer, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, "is the most open political function that I think America's ever had."

Indeed, there were two or more reporters and photographers for every $50,000 donor. The media pestered the 75 or so guests while they ate, peered over their shoulders as they met, and interviewed them in the hallways.

For the most part the donors complied cheerfully, having been prepped by the party in advance. But not all. "My God, do we have to eat in the glare of the cameras?" one protested at breakfast, pointedly choosing a seat with his back to the assembled electronic throng.

Gore told the donors at dinner that Democratic ideas could not win elections without their financial support. "Your willingness to come here, and to identify yourselves as leaders for the future, to be willing to be part of this winning team, is something we really appreciate more than we can tell you."

Democratic officials said the purpose of opening normally private events was to "demystify" the fund-raising process and show Americans that giving money to a political party can be an act of principle and commitment.

"I do this because I believe in it," said Bob Rose, 46, of New York, a managing director for the investment firm Bear, Stearns. "I have no business agenda. I have no specific policy agenda, other than trying to do what's right for kids, and my kid." His 10-year-old son, David, accompanied him and got Clinton's autograph.

Party leaders conceded that fund-raising has been more difficult since the revelations that some of their 1996 contributions _ less than 1 percent, they stressed _ came from illegal or improper sources. They agreed to refund that money and said they have tightened their procedures.

But on Saturday they fiercely attacked the Republicans, who have been holding hearings in Congress on the scandal. Republicans have sought to make the Democrats look bad for their own gain while blocking any true reform, they said.

"This system is flawed, we've all heard it," said Romer, who is also the governor of Colorado. "We're trying to change it."

The Democrats' message to the public, he said, is "Help us. Help us change this system. All of us who are in it would like to see it change. But until it changes, we've got to keep our team on the field."

Both Romer and Steven Grossman, the party's national chairman, jeered at last week's news that the Republicans were halting their hearings in the U.S. Senate, which have been chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

Romer accused the Republicans of "an orgasm of righteousness" and said it was hypocritical for the Senate to knock off now that new evidence about Republican spending practices had emerged.

He said the Democrats had racked up $7.5-million in debt defending themselves in the Senate hearings _ half of the party's total debt _ and were not going to be as compliant now that the hearings are shifting to the U.S. House, under Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana.

"We're not going to go chasing rabbits for anybody up there, and let them use that as a deliberate strategy to divert us from what we're doing," Romer said. "We're going to resist it. We're not going to play that game." But he provided no details of what the party planned.

Saturday morning, donors attended a breakfast discussion of the 1998 elections, then broke into separate rooms for discussions of education, global trends and the arts and culture.

Clinton, tieless, wearing a green short-sleeved shirt and slacks, dropped by each discussion group with little fanfare. Suffering from a sore throat, he spoke hoarsely and quietly, although not as briefly as the organizers had warned he might.

Next to raising Democratic money, one of Clinton's goals in his two-day trip to Florida was to boost support for a measure in Congress to give him more authority to negotiate future trade deals.

But Clinton told one discussion group Saturday morning that he has "completely failed" to sell the merits of global trade, and international involvement in general, to the American people.

The donors heard from party pollsters and strategists about the midterm elections next year. The economy is good and voters are largely happy with Clinton, but the party must work hard to reach out to voters _ especially women, Hispanics, Generation-Xers and African-Americans _ if it wants to regain seats in Congress, they said.

Saturday afternoon, the donors chose among golf, tennis, a movie matinee, or just lying by the pool or the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny, brilliant day.

After a dinner of mixed green salad with vinaigrette, grilled Chilean sea bass ("We believe in free trade," a White House staffer said), and sorbet for dessert, the donors were entertained by singer Art Garfunkle.

Clinton departs this morning and leaves the limelight to Gore, a likely candidate for president in 2000. Gore will attend breakfast and another round of issue discussions, and then deliver farewell remarks at lunch.