UNITY, N.H. -- After hearing him speak in nearby Newport the other night, Susan Lawrence invited Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder over for tea the next time he is in New Hampshire.

Being invited to discuss politics at the long table in Lawrence's kitchen -- decorated with blinking Christmas lights, sculptures of dragons, trays of sprouting flowers and vegetables, and masks of presidents Bush, Reagan and Nixon -- is tantamount to acknowledging that the guest is considered a worthy candidate for national office.

Wilder promised an enthusiastic gathering of 100 Democrats last Wednesday at the 19th century opera house in nearby Newport that "when the snow is on the ground" he will return to the state that will hold the first presidential primary in 1992.

If Wilder then makes it to Lawrence's house, he'll add his name to a list of would-be presidents, including Michael S. Dukakis, Paul Simon, Richard A. Gephardt and Joseph R. Biden Jr., who have sampled the organic vegetables and dandelion wine of Lawrence, the Sullivan County Democratic chairman.

Wilder's carefully worded denials notwithstanding, some Democrats here are convinced, and pleased, that his initial foray into the Granite State was not the coincidence that Wilder contends. He said he accepted the invitation because he already was speaking that same day at Harvard University, 100 miles to the south.

When asked whether he might seek a spot on the 1992 ticket, Wilder told reporters -- several from national news organizations that seem to follow him whenever he makes one of his frequent sorties outside of Virginia -- that he intends to serve out his full four-year term, to which he cannot be reelected. But 1996, he added with a grin, "is a totally different ballgame."

Nonetheless, Wilder's press secretary, Laura Dillard, conceded the ambiguity of that promise, pointing out that he "intends" to serve out his term, which is not the same as pledging that he "will" do so.

In his speech the other night, Wilder's call for an impartial investigation of the savings and loan scandal appeared to strike a responsive chord, further escalating his carefully orchestrated national exposure.

Just five months into his gubernatorial term, Wilder has visited California, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Georgia, Tennessee and Louisiana. Next week, the nation's first elected black governor plans to travel to Minnesota, and later in the month he is scheduled to campaign with newly nominated Democratic candidates during a two-day swing across Iowa, site of the first presidential caucuses in 1992.

The governor's schedule book shows appearances this summer in Texas, Colorado, Mississippi and Alabama, and return visits to New York, California and Illinois.

The savings and loan issue, which Wilder plans to continue to play, bears the mark of Paul Goldman, Wilder's political guru, who believes that an easily understood issue, preferably with a populist strain, is the way to voters' hearts. In Wilder's successful campaign last year, that issue was abortion.

Along with Alexandria businessman Mark Warner, a Wilder financial backer who also made the 650-mile trip, Goldman advanced Wilder's appearance as if it were a campaign kickoff. Goldman called or visited radio stations and newspapers, offering background on Wilder's career and achievements during his first months as governor.

Dillard said the trip to New Hampshire -- as well as the upcoming visit to Iowa -- was not made at taxpayers' expense. The governor traveled to New Hampshire, with the stop at Harvard, on a plane provided by Virginia architect T.A. Carter.

Goldman, who serves without pay as Wilder's hand-picked chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said his expenses were paid by the state party, which has budgeted a record $35,000 for staff travel this year.

Over the weekend, at a meeting of the Virginia Democratic state central committee in Richmond, several members complained privately that Goldman appears to be working to turn the state party organization into Wilder's personal instrument.

"If Doug wants to run for president, that's fine," said one party official. "But the campaign shouldn't be run out of party headquarters."

At the Opera House in Newport, a blue-collar town of 6,500, the $25-a-couple fund-raiser netted $600 or $700, which Lawrence said is more than was raised at last year's event, which featured Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.).

Lawrence said she got "good vibes" from Wilder, but isn't sure the country is "mature enough" to vote for a black. "I don't think they are for a woman" either, she said, pausing and then adding excitedly: "Wilder-Schroeder -- what a ticket."

Lawrence said she wished Wilder exhibited "a little more pizazz" in his oratory, voicing a common observation. But Wilder's low-key, unemotional speaking style also has an upside, locals said.

"Jesse Jackson's cheerleading turns me off," said Lawrence, making a comparison between the two black leaders that Wilder avows he seeks to avoid, even as he invites it. ("I'm getting to New Hampshire before Jesse," Wilder joked in his appearance at Harvard.)

But having met Wilder, Lawrence said, comparisons with Jackson fade. "It's apples and oranges," she said, pointing to Wilder's 20 years' experience as an elected official. Jackson has never held elective office.

Former state chairman Laurence Ingram, a retired government professor at nearby Dartmouth College, said Wilder "comes across to me as a big man, not as a minority candidate. He's different from Jackson. He's not an affirmative-action candidate."

Gordon Lull, a reporter for the nearby Claremont Eagle-Times, called Wilder's New Mainstream agenda a "perfect" campaign theme, but not everyone agreed.

Retired Cincinnati businessman John Rauh, nephew of Washington civil liberties lawyer Joseph L. Rauh Jr. and one of three Democrats seeking nomination to an open U.S. Senate seat from this state, said the main ingredients of Wilder's agenda "don't go together."

And Denis Parker, executive director of the New Hampshire Employees Association, criticized Democratic leaders for welcoming Wilder, "a known right-to-work advocate who is anti-collective bargaining for public employees." Parker said the "wooing of Wilder" by national Democrats is "a slap in the face to all working people . . . . I don't think the guy should be welcomed here by Democrats. If that's what the Democrats want to stand for, I'll join the Republican Party."

Primed by Wilder's aide, Goldman, George Bruno, the state's Democratic national committeeman, responded that Wilder was elected "with warm labor support." Wilder added that the right-to-work law "works well" in Virginia. Ironically, in last year's gubernatorial campaign, Wilder had to defend himself against Republican accusations that he might allow the law to be weakened.

Tom Sherman, a former Sullivan County chairman who organized the rally at which Wilder spoke, said he and other party activists "tend to be more progressive," but "when you see what happened {in the past two presidential races}, you realize we must come up with candidates who are electable."

"If some other candidates don't start making noise," Bruno added, "Wilder may get the nomination in '92 by default, whether he wants it or not."

"It's an open field," said Bruno, who recalled that unlike the midpoints of Ronald Reagan's two terms in the White House, when there was no scarcity of challengers, "there is a vacuum of leadership" in the Democratic Party at the approach of the midpoint of President Bush's term.

Bruno, who invited Wilder to speak after being turned down by three Democratic senators -- Sam Nunn of Georgia, Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska -- said that if someone else gets the nomination, and asks Wilder to be the vice presidential nominee, "it would be his patriotic duty to accept."