Less than five months after joining Congress in 1981, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley (R-Va.) moved to center stage in Virginia's fight for exemption from the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law designed to increase black voting in the South.

The lanky, silver-haired freshman locked horns with members of a key House subcommittee, causing one House Democrat to angrily declare: "Congressman Bliley's reassurance that all's well in Virginia is hogwash."

Bliley, a former Richmond mayor, did not back down, firmly insisting that the law had served its purpose and was no longer needed.

Bliley's role in the Voting Rights Act fight seemingly indicated that the new congressman would adopt the traditional stance of many other southern congressman, but his actions since that time have been anything but predictable.

Recently the conservative Republican startled some supporters back home when he endorsed a bill by Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), a black, to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. And he surprised many others when he agreed, as a member of the House District of Columbia Committee, to take a leading role two years ago in the fight to give the District's mayor the power to make judicial appointments.

If Bliley, 53, has caught some people off guard with his controversial actions, he also has caught the eye of many Virginia Republicans who consider him a rising star in the party. Lately, he has been mentioned as a leading conservative contender for the GOP's gubernatorial nomination in 1989.

The former funeral home director has an easygoing style and a lulling southern drawl that belies his intense frustration over a system he feels puts government officials under excessive public scrutiny and industry under undue government regulation. He is fiercely loyal to Richmond businesses, like the tobacco industry and pharmaceutical manufacturer A.H. Robins Co., and to his alma mater, Georgetown University.

And Bliley has been unabashed in declaring and demonstrating those frustrations, loyalties and personal beliefs:

* He destroys most memos, letters and documents because of his frustration over having his mayoral records subpoenaed during a six-year court battle.

* He talks with great disdain about the rules requiring congressmen to make public their assets, liabilities and outside income.

* He led the House fight in 1981 against a ban on Medicaid payments for prescription drugs that had not been proven effective -- a ban that would have hurt A.H. Robins.

* He led the opposition, as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to tougher health labeling on cigarette packages.

* He has a Georgetown basketball player as an intern in his congressional office every summer.

He sponsored a measure, at the request of Georgetown University, which made it easier for the District of Columbia to sell revenue bonds on behalf of private institutions, such as local universities.

* He launched a crusade last year against "dial-a-porn" because, he said, he was outraged that children could call a telephone number and hear suggestive tape recordings.

Those actions, some say, reflect Bliley's background and beliefs. A product of Richmond's parochial schools and a 1952 history graduate of Georgetown University, he is married and the father of two children. He served as a Navy officer for three years in the 1950s and his newsletters reflect a strident anticommunist viewpoint. After the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, he said the incident proves "what many of us have been saying for years: 'You can't trust the communists!' "

Bliley, says one staffer for a Democratic congressman who has battled with the lawmaker, is a fierce fighter in the "southern gentleman politician mode. He never yells or loses his temper . . . but he is insistent and persistent."

"He's not flamboyant, but he's solid.And that has worn well with the people here," said Del. Ralph L. (Bill) Axselle Jr., a Democrat from Richmond. "It's an accurate reflection of the district."

Bliley represents Virginia's 3rd Congressional District, which includes the state capital of Richmond, a black majority city, and the suburbs of Henrico and Chesterfield counties, which are overwhelmingly white, Republican and conservative.

Last year, the Democrats did not put up a candidate against Bliley, who won 87 percent of the vote against an independent candidate. Although Bliley served as Richmond's mayor from 1970 to 1977 (he was the last white to hold the office), his strongest support came from the suburbs.

While he was mayor, Richmond was embroiled in a civil rights lawsuit aimed at blocking the annexation of some white suburbs. The suit eventually led to a ward system of elections, which resulted in a black mayor. Bliley's mayoral records were subpoenaed during the court battle and since that time he has disposed of his public records almost immediately, according to his staff.

In addition, he runs his staff like a mayor's office. His administrative assistant, Boyd Marcus, acts as a city manager, making decisions on the day-to-day operations, including staff hiring. Marcus says that Bliley prefers to concentrate on broad policy considerations and not be bothered with details.

Bliley was a Democrat when he served as mayor and only switched to the Republican Party when he made his bid for Congress. He says he is not interested in returning to Richmond as governor, but party regulars are skeptical.

"It's no secret that he's interested in the governor's race in 1989," said one Richmonder who is active in the state Republican Party.

Noting that Bliley gave $1,000 to most Virginia Republican congressional candidates last year, a Republican staff employe for a Virginia congressman said: "He's definitely going somewhere in the Republican Party . . . . He probably has more influence in the Republican Party than any other House member."

As a congressman, Bliley says that complying with the financial disclosure requirements is one of the "most distasteful things" he must do.

He added that the information can be mistakenly reported. Bliley said in 1982, he sold his American Telephone and Telegraph Co. stock, because the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he serves on, was about to take up a major telecommunications bill.

Bliley said a reporter later misread the financial disclosure form and wrote that Bliley had purchased, instead of sold, the securities. Bliley said a retraction was printed, but "you know that a retraction is generally in small type buried in the paper. That didn't exactly endear me to these forms."

One of the most controversial issues Bliley got into last year was the "Compassionate Pain Relief Act." The bill would allow terminally ill patients to use heroin for relief from pain.

Bliley originally cosponsored the bill, which was opposed by the Reagan administration. On the floor of the House, however, he spoke out against the measure, causing supporters to accuse him of caving in to White House pressures.

Bliley says it was not political pressures that changed his mind. He said he withdrew his support after being contacted by the faculty of Medical College of Virginia, by druggists and by pharmaceutical companies, who convinced him that safer, legal drugs were available.

"I hope that that is indicative of how I will be in the future," said Bliley. "I hope that I will always be open to new avenues."