RICHMOND -- It was a classic spot for a riverboat gambler, and Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who knows when to hold them and knows when to fold them, was the big winner.

The issue was the heavily lobbied and hotly debated proposal to require that all school districts in the state delay the start of the public school year until after Labor Day.

On Monday, the issue carried 20 to 19, with one abstention. As often occurs on a close vote, a motion was made to reconsider. The second vote was put off a day to give the supporters and opponents, and lobbyists, time to regroup.

As the time approached for Tuesday's final vote, it appeared that Wilder could be a key, because, as presiding officer of the Senate, the lieutenant governor votes only to break ties.

And which way would Wilder vote?

"I think he's on my side," said Del. Alson H. Smith (D-Winchester), the sponsor of the measure, who added, however, "I'm afraid the other side is counting on him too."

But when the final vote was taken Tuesday, it was 21 to 19 in favor of passage, so Wilder didn't have to play his card.

Old Poker Face won't say what card he was holding, because "it's all hypothetical."

Unlike Wilder, state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry has never been regarded as much of a risk-taker, so her endorsement last month of the presidential bid of Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) was seen as a bit out of character.

She remains the only major Democrat in the state to have endorsed a presidential candidate, but in the month since her ballyhooed appearance with Gore in Crystal City, when she was named a national cochairman of the Gore campaign, she has done little more than lend her name to the effort.

At the time, Terry said that "schedule permitting," she hoped to travel around the country, especially in the South, on behalf of Gore. But so far, the schedule apparently hasn't permitted. She made it as far as Roanoke once, to appear with Gore and singer Johnny Cash, and to Fairfax for a fund-raiser at the home of Al Dwoskin.

Between now and "Super Tuesday," which is just 12 days off, Terry may finally get off the ground, literally, on Gore's behalf. Her press aide, Bert Rohrer, said she may go to Kentucky or North Carolina or both this weekend for Gore rallies, but she begged off as a surrogate for him in Wyoming on Saturday because of the time and expense of getting there.

If any other statewide Democrats are going to get into the endorsement business, it probably will occur sometime after Monday night, when candidates debate at the College of William and Mary.

Both Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, who will host the debate at Phi Beta Kappa Hall, and former governor Charles S. Robb, a founder of the sponsoring Democratic Leadership Council, want to retain their neutrality for their roles in Williamsburg.

The betting is that if Baliles jumps, it will be toward Gore. Earlier in the campaign, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri might have gotten the nod, but Gephardt's isolationist line on trade doesn't blend with Baliles' crusade for more foreign investment and trade as the key to the state's economy.

As for Robb, he hasn't exhibited genuine enthusiasm for a candidate since Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia took himself out of consideration last year. Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt might have been acceptable to Robb, but with his campaign ended, he remains on the Virginia ballot in name only.

Meanwhile, the mathematicians over at the headquarters of the state Republican Party have been hard at work calculating the per-minute cost of Baliles' $22.5 billion two-year budget proposal.

The GOP says that if the legislature enacts the budget in its current form, Virginia "will spend more than $21,000 a minute during the next two years," according to Joe Elton, the party's executive director.

"A whole lot of Virginians don't make nearly that much in a year," Elton added.

Chris Bridge, the governor's press secretary, did not dispute the GOP's political math, but she suggested that it was beside the point. "If you look at it in terms of a return on taxpayer investment, it's probably a bargain," Bridge said. "This is a growing state, and the budget reflects its strength."

Indeed, far from settling for just the governor's spending plan, the fiscal committees of the General Assembly agreed this week to add at least $90 million to the two-year budget.

In other GOP news, W. Gilbert Faulk Jr., a lawyer and businessman who recently moved to McLean, has announced that he will run for his party's nomination to challenge Robb for the U.S. Senate this year.

Faulk, a 43-year-old Louisiana native who grew up in Richmond, moved to Northern Virginia after purchasing a small Washington news service and opening a law office in the District.

He said he wanted to challenge Robb, who already has raised nearly $1 million to capture the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr., because "I believe you've got to have a contested race." Otherwise, as senator, Robb "will be in a position to vote a liberal line," Faulk said.