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As is their holiday habit, President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton were expected to slip out of Washington today for a New Year's Eve Renaissance Weekend at South Carolina's Hilton Head Island resort.

After two days of mixing with hundreds of friends and other regulars at the annual retreat, the first couple plans to fly to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Thursday for four days of rest at a secluded villa.

The Clintons have spent New Year's Eve at Hilton Head in each of the last 12 years; last year, they added a new twist: a vacation stop in St. Thomas.

The Hilton Head event is a high-minded, invitation-only conclave of achievers in fields ranging from finance and religion to politics, science and sports. The cozy, closed-door event was established in 1981 by Clinton friend Phil Lader, who headed the Small Business Administration in Clinton's first term. Lader is now ambassador to Britain.

The Clintons customarily attend one or two policy seminars. After last year's session, attended by about 500 families -- 1,600 people in all -- the president expressed regret at the growing size of the gatherings.

Clinton has no public events on his schedule for Hilton Head or St. Thomas.

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