When Virginia Gov.-elect Gerald L. Baliles announced his first major appointment -- retaining David A. McCloud as chief of staff -- he set off a mixed reaction from those looking for early outlines of the new administration.

Was the low-key Baliles, who campaigned on the theme of rightful heir to incumbent Charles S. Robb, making a mistake of me-tooism and not clearly establishing his own team when he reappointed Robb's top aide?

Or was the McCloud appointment the right move -- it certainly surprised many people here -- that demonstrated Baliles was self-confident enough to make major long-range decisions that might have negative short-term implications?

You could get either explanation in Richmond political circles this week, with the answer not likely to be apparent until Baliles makes other key decisions before his self-imposed deadline of Dec. 15.

The appointment may say more about McCloud, 41, who rose from midlevel bureaucratic obscurity to become the most powerful appointee in state government, than Baliles.

McCloud has worked for Robb since 1979 when Robb was lieutenant governor. McCloud, a native of Lebanon in Southwest Virginia, had worked for the state since 1971 and was director of the personnel division's equal employment opportunity office when Robb hired him.

A 1966 graduate of Emory & Henry College in Southwest Virginia, McCloud holds a master's degree in southern political history from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and is a part-time professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond where he teaches a course in government.

"It means we won't have to start in kindergarten," said Keech LaGrand, a special assistant on the Baliles transition team. McCloud, she said, could help Baliles avoid the political nightmares of beginning his term just as the often cranky legislature convenes.

McCloud will spare Baliles some of the uncertainties that Robb's administration faced when it became the first Democratic administration in 12 years and was confronted with running an $8.5 billion-a-year government. McCloud has a generally good rapport with legislative leaders and has played a decisive role in preparing the two-year, $17 billion budget that Robb will submit to the legislature as his last major act as governor.

Such firsthand knowledge, Baliles insiders say, is invaluable and worth whatever risks there may be for Baliles in keeping McCloud.

Robb appointees recall those early days in 1981 when Robb took over from former Gov. John N. Dalton and they were handed the reins of government with little advance preparation.

Still, many of Baliles' people were surprised by the McCloud appointment.

McCloud, a tall, hulking presence on the governor's third floor, won both praise and sharp criticism as Robb's top staffer. He served as Robb's "door stopper," reviewing every policy idea and nearly every piece of paper and appointment on the governor's schedule.

That kind of job earns enemies even if the role is carried out with grace, a characteristic that McCloud's critics say he has sometimes lacked.

McCloud himself had talked for months about the burn-out nature of his job and had said he was looking forward to marketing his high-priced experience and skills next summer in private business. He already reluctantly agreed, largely because Robb asked him, to take a six-month assignment next year to straighten out managerial problems that are hampering the work of the Center for Innovative Technology.

The CIT, which Robb sees as a major accomplishment, is a $30 million project in Northern Virginia that is supposed to boost the high-tech image of Virginia and the research departments of the state's colleges. McCloud would have made $97,500 at the CIT job as opposed to the $73,450 he makes in the Robb administration.

McCloud and Robb have been searching for ways to improve management at the CIT. The center's president, Robert Pry, has been credited with promoting the CIT within the business community but sharply criticized as an administrator who must seek support from skeptical legislators. McCloud's decision to remain in Richmond means the CIT probably still needs new leadership.

There is some speculation that McCloud has not signed up with Baliles for the long term, that he may leave the administration within six to nine months after it gets its feet on the ground.

The announcement suggested McCloud would be around for the full four-year term, but that also could have been done intentionally. If McCloud were known as a short-term appointment, it could undercut his authority.

McCloud did not dispute that suggestion last week, but simply said, "I'm here as long as the governor wants me."