TRAVERSE CITY, MICH., JULY 25 -- Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, whose vision of his native state in the 21st century has not always electrified the folks back home, basked in the spotlight today as the nation's governors gathered to begin studying many of his administration's initiatives.

Here in the heart of northern Michigan, Baliles hopes to use the annual conference of the National Governors' Association as a very public forum on several programs that have barely caused ripples of excitement in Virginia. Themes he has pursued in the face of indifference or controversy -- international trade, foreign language education, inmate literacy and higher taxes for transportation -- are suddenly hot issues, and Baliles plans to make the most of the attention, he said in an interview.

Already, the governor's aides and others familiar with the discreet politicking that accompanies such things are saying Baliles has a good shot at being elected Tuesday as the association's chairman for 1988-89, a rare accolade for a governor who by law must leave office after one four-year term.

"Some of my colleagues have approached me and encouraged me to consider it," Baliles said. "I'm flattered by all that, but it's too soon to tell."

Even if his peers do not reward Baliles with a post that would thrust him into the national limelight during a presidential election season, the governor is clearly relishing the exposure he has won as cochairman of an association task force on jobs, growth and competitiveness.

The task force's report, released today, will be the focus of three days of discussions by the governors and bears the Baliles imprint: It is studded with references to Virginia, including the special taxing districts created by the General Assembly this year to help Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties finance transportation improvements.

"Seventy percent of our meetings this week will revolve around this report," said governors association staff member Linda Dove. "Baliles was able to provide us with suggestions, guidance and examples of what Virginia was doing."

At a news conference with association Chairman and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, and the governors of Michigan, Delaware and New Hampshire, Baliles said his task force "has not tried to reinvent the wheel -- but we haven't been afraid to look at the chassis either."

"We have compiled a catalogue of invention -- exercises in government and innovations the 50 states are taking to shape the future rather than be shaped by it," he said.

Without mentioning President Reagan by name, Baliles sharply criticized the president's brand of federalism, which has shifted the focus and burdens of many public policies from Washington to the state governments.

"It used to be that Washington stood tall and tried to do what was necessary -- it built the interstates, supported the students, funded the research," Baliles said.

"Today, it seems that the best Washington can do is stand tall and duck," he added. "The states, on the other hand, are not ducking . . . . We're not waiting on Washington."

Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer is one of five governors not attending the meeting. A spokeswoman said last week that Schaefer "can't afford the time" and is "readying himself" for the legislative session that convenes in five months.

Baliles, by contrast, plans to be everywhere during the annual meeting and later in the week at a session of Democratic governors.

"All governors feel the need to move their states forward," he said. "To that extent, what we're doing in Virginia is mirrored in other states at different levels. Some are just starting; others are farther along."

So far in the fish-catching category, Baliles is well ahead of the pack. On Friday, he landed an eight-pound trout using an artificial lure in the waters of Lake Michigan. The fish, the governor declared, was a keeper.