WASHINGTON (AP) _ With his party saddled by debt and controversy, President Clinton summoned big-money donors Wednesday for pep talks on Democratic strategy to target key states in an exceptionally early start to the 1998 midterm elections.

In daylong sessions featuring a personal pitch by Clinton, the party's fattest fat cats were promised a unified front to elect Democrats to Congress, governorships and state legislatures. States such as California, Arkansas, Nevada and Washington _ with contested races up and down the ticket _ will receive the lion's share of the party's attention.

Political aides from the White House and the Democratic National Committee met at a Washington hotel with 40 to 50 donors before Clinton addressed the group Wednesday evening. The donors, expected to raise and contribute $250,000 apiece over two years, were agitated about fund-raising investigations and their inability to keep tabs on party affairs, according to several people who attended the private session.

Monte Friedkin, a donor from Boca Raton, Fla., called the meeting ``a standard session of complaints.'' DNC chairman Roy Romer said donors were ``venting.''

Flattering the deep-pocketed crowd during a public session, Clinton said, ``I believe you helped to contribute to a profound, almost revolutionary positive change in the direction of our country.'' Afterward, reporters were escorted from the room so Clinton could field questions in private.

The high-profile sessions came at a critical time for the party: It is $16 million in debt and under investigation for questionable fund-raising techniques coordinated by Clinton's re-election team. Both problems threaten to scare donors away.

Bill Rollnick, a Miami investor and longtime Democratic donor, plans to keep giving but voiced a typical complaint: The fund-raising controversy has cast a shadow over all donations. He blamed party leaders for failing to sift out improper 1996 contributions.

``That really was stupid. Real stupid,'' he said. ``That was asking for trouble.''

The president and his team focused on broad and ambitious plans for the 1998 elections. Contributors were told the goals are to:

_Capture control of the House.

_Pick up seats in the Senate, though a Democratic majority is not expected.

_Compete for vulnerable statehouse seats because redistricting in 2000 gives immense power to the next crop of governors and state lawmakers. Thirty-eight governor races are on the 1998 ballot.

``This is not just about winning in `98,'' said Jill Alper, political director for the Democratic National Committee. ``It's about who draws the lines in the future.''

Alper said all elements of the party _ including Senate, House and gubernatorial election committees _ are working together on message, spending and targeting strategies.

Democratic campaigns were coordinated in 1994 only for fund raising. In 1996, Democrats broadened the joint approach, but not until four months before the election.

``We've always been collegial and cooperative,'' Alper said. ``What's different is we have a joint strategy early, and we're planning together and we're implementing together.''

Officials said the midterm Democratic message likely will follow Clinton's 1996 appeal to suburban and female voters: stress education, anti-crime and health care initiatives.

To focus their resources, the White House and DNC have ranked each state based on the likely number of tight congressional and statehouse races. The states are broken into three tiers, with 10 states considered the hottest battlegrounds. The first tier includes California, Nevada, Washington state and Arkansas.

In California, Pete Wilson can't run again. Sen. Barbara Boxer is in for a tough re-election race. If Democrats stand a chance of closing the 22-seat gap in the House, they must do well in the 10 or so targeted California congressional races. And there are no assurances that the state legislature will remain Democratic for redistricting.

In Nevada, Democrat Sen. Harry Reid is considered vulnerable and Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., may vacate his seat to run against him. Term limits are pushing Gov. Bob Miller out of office and Republicans hope to cling to a narrow majority in the state Senate.

Washington state, where former House Speaker Tom Foley was bumped from office in 1994, will be a battleground again in 1998. Seats held by four Republican lawmakers _ Jack Metcalf, Linda Smith, Doc Hastings and Rick White _ will be heavily contested, Democrats believe. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is up for re-election and faces stiff competition from Smith.

Republicans have made remarkable inroads in Clinton's home state. Things could get worse for the Democrats if Sen. Dale Bumpers decides not to run again. Republican Rep. Jay Dickey is serving in one of the nation's most Democratic districts. And Gov. Mike Huckabee appears to have a firm hold on his job, but nothing is certain in the predominately Democratic state.