RICHMOND, AUG. 10 -- Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's latest feuding with his predecessor, Gerald L. Baliles, fits a two-decade pattern of Wilder zealously protecting his independence and relishing confrontation, several observers of the governor's career said today.

In prompting a public spat with a fellow Democrat who helped him win a razor-thin victory last fall, Wilder showed once again an old penchant for nursing grudges and stumbling into needless controversy, many of those people said.

"It's pointless and irrational. It does him absolutely no good," University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said of Wilder's criticism of Baliles. "He's not an automaton, he's a human being, and this is a part of his psychology."

"He's very independent, and I admire him for that," said state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Manassas), who nonetheless said Wilder should focus on solving state issues, "not pointing the finger of blame" at predecessors.

"I just think it's embarrassing to have high officials quarreling publicly," said Sen. Clive L. DuVal 2d (D-McLean), dean of the Northern Virginia legislative delegation.

Tension has been simmering between the current and former chief executives, fueled by Wilder's repeated comments suggesting that Baliles mishandled the state budget and other urgent issues during his term.

But the pot boiled over Thursday when Wilder, in an interview with The Washington Post, made a series of barbed references to Baliles, including a mention of his wife's personal aide and his children's security detail while he was governor. Baliles responded with a statement urging his successor to "put aside his personal vendettas."

The tempest had Richmond political circles buzzing today, with many observers suggesting that the current uproar was foreshadowed by events during Wilder's four-year tenure as lieutenant governor.

Shortly after his election to the second-highest office in 1985, Wilder clashed with then-Gov. Charles S. Robb, also a Democrat, over whether Robb was seeking too much credit for Wilder's election, which made him the nation's highest black officeholder.

In 1986, Wilder angered Baliles by making public attacks on his positions on such issues as how to finance transportation, without offering Baliles advance warning.

Nonetheless, both Baliles and Robb played high-profile roles on behalf of Wilder last fall in his 6,800-vote victory over Republican J. Marshall Coleman.

Wilder then presented himself as their logical heir, but he doesn't cite their examples very often these days. Some people contend that the open sniping with Baliles may signal the start of a new season of intramural rivalries, similar to the bitter divisions that have plagued Virginia's Republican Party in recent years.

"It goes without saying that if this goes on long enough it would probably" harm Democrats at the ballot box, said Del. Alson H. Smith Jr. (D-Winchester), a leading party fund-raiser who has worked for Wilder and Baliles.

Steve Haner, executive director of the Republican legislative caucus, joked that when Wilder gives a statewide television speech next week to talk about fiscal matters, Baliles should be given 15 minutes to offer an "opposition response."

"He's creating a lot of opportunities for Republicans," agreed Mark J. Rozell, a political scientist at Mary Washington College. The finger-pointing at Baliles "certainly adds credibility to Republican claims that Democratic overspending" is to blame for the state's $1.4 billion shortfall over the next two-year budget cycle.

Many of those interviewed were divided over whether a logical political motive can be found behind Wilder's unflattering remarks about Baliles, or whether the comments sprang from purely personal sentiments.

Virginia Commonwealth University professor Robert Holsworth believes Wilder's statements are part of an attempt by Wilder to portray himself nationally as a conservative Democrat who can make hard fiscal choices. In this scenario, Baliles is the liberal foil, a traditional "tax-and-spend Democrat," Holsworth said.

The only surprise, he said, is that "a proud and hardball politician like Baliles would wait so long" before striking back.

Others couldn't discern such carefully thought-out motives behind Wilder's statements. His fighting with other Democrats "is a pattern of behavior; it's a visceral reaction," said Sabato. Both Robb and Baliles "deserve a great deal of credit and that galls him . . . . At some level, Wilder enjoys sticking other politicians in the ribs."

Wilder's comments about Baliles's budget policies and spending for the governor's office -- "the state police {were} carrying his kids wherever they wanted to go" -- weren't meant as criticism, Wilder's press secretary, Laura Dillard, said today.

"Governor Wilder offered a recitation of the facts," Dillard said. "The interpretation others give to those facts, he can't control."