RICHMOND, JUNE 29 -- The rumors have been bubbling in this city for weeks, tantalizing but unconfirmed, and for the most part unpublished: Is it really true that Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is romancing Patricia Kluge, estranged wife of the nation's richest man?

The rumors aren't confirmed, but during the past several days enough circumstantial evidence has been amassed that most reporters and assorted other capital gossips feel comfortable venturing their private conclusions: Something is definitely up.

The inevitable happened this morning, when the Roanoke Times & World-News put the whispers into print with a story quoting an unnamed Kluge employee as saying that Wilder, 59, escorted Kluge, 41, on weekend getaways in Nantucket, Mass., and Virginia Beach, and the Charlottesville Daily Progress weighed in with a report that Wilder has attended private dinner parties in Charlottesville with Kluge.

The reports followed disclosures this week in The Washington Post about Wilder's liberal use of state-owned aircraft, which state records show he used to travel to all the locations where he was purportedly socializing with Kluge.

The clamor among reporters hanging out at the governor's press office today made it clear that something has hit the fan, though it's not quite clear just what.

Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, has after all been single since 1978, when he and former wife Eunice Wilder were divorced. Patricia Kluge and billionaire John W. Kluge -- estimated by Forbes magazine to be America's richest man -- separated last spring and have reached a divorce settlement that will give her the interest from $1 billion a year, according to several published reports.

"We're friends," but only friends, Wilder told the Roanoke reporter who asked Thursday night about the nature of their relationship.

Wilder responded to the published reports today by saying he wouldn't respond -- his press secretary, Laura Dillard, would.

"I'm not going to dignify any gossip with any comment," Dillard said.

Patricia Kluge referred questions to her press spokeswoman, Candace Campbell, who couldn't be reached for comment. In the past, Campbell has emphasized that both Kluges are friends with Wilder.

The friendship has been generous in both directions. The couple were the largest contributors to Wilder's gubernatorial campaign last fall, holding fund-raisers for him at their sprawling Albemarle Farms estate and writing checks totaling $200,000. For his part, Wilder tapped Patricia Kluge -- a former Briton who many years ago was a nude model for magazines -- for the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, even though she never graduated from high school and her appointment was opposed by many on the Charlottesville campus.

Wilder is Virginia's first single governor in decades. That, and the changing standards about the private lives of public figures, had put many reporters and editors in a quandary about the propriety of pursuing the Kluge rumors. Is it anybody's business?

Wilder in May gave a speech to newspaper ombudsmen defending his right to privacy, but many Virginia journalists and political analysts said he forfeited that by seeming to pursue his Kluge friendship using state-owned aircraft, at least partially at public expense.

State records show Wilder has reimbursed the state $6,300 for use of the state plane for "personal travel," including a trip to Nantucket this month. The records don't show who was on board, but they do show the jet flew on to Charlottesville on June 11 after dropping off a passenger in Washington. The passenger was apparently Wilder, who was giving a speech in the District that day. Wilder and Dillard have refused to say who was on board.

But Dillard has said the governor has no intention of reimbursing the state for helicopter use. State logs show he used a state helicopter for several trips to Charlottesville, on the same dates that the Daily Progress said he was attending dinner parties with Kluge.

Spokesmen for Wilder's two predecessors, Democrats Gerald L. Baliles and Charles S. Robb, said neither man used state aircraft for purely personal trips.

Meanwhile Dillard gave the appearance of someone who wasn't enjoying her day. "I'll discuss budget cuts or fighting drugs," she steamed.

Today at least, no one was asking.