RICHMOND -- There have been news conferences, budget briefings and an unprecedented speech on statewide television as Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has forcefully brought Virginia's deteriorating finances to center stage.

Despite the spotlight on the problems, state legislators and local officials say that the governor's solutions -- other than repeated pledges not to raise taxes in light of slowing revenue -- remain frustratingly unclear.

Wilder has proposed to slash spending by almost $1.4 billion during the current two-year budget cycle, but the details are vague. No one knows, for example, how much each of the Northern Virginia school districts will lose in state aid or how cuts in social service departments will affect needy individuals.

As a result, Wilder's critics are asking:

Does the administration have a plan?

How bad is the budget crunch?

Are national political ambitions affecting Wilder's handling of the budget?

The governor "has made the budget the major issue in the state -- the only issue in the state," said Robert Holsworth, a Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist. "He clearly plans to stake his entire political future on his handling of this."

Just as politicians gain influence when they have lots of money to dole out, observers say, Wilder has gained similar leverage in austerity -- becoming the broker deciding who wins and loses. Wilder has the authority to cut state agency appropriations by 25 percent without General Assembly approval, and the executive branch is almost the sole provider of information about the state's economy and spending.

When Health and Human Services Secretary Howard M. Cullum made a particularly compelling appeal for a dental program for children in a meeting with Wilder, the governor turned to Finance Secretary Paul W. Timmreck and ordered him to find $8 million somewhere else, Wilder press secretary Laura Dillard recalled.

Wilder said he'll make public more details of his planned spending cuts in September. Meanwhile, the rhetoric from this onetime liberal legislator is sounding more conservative than ever.

Before local officials in Charlottesville last week, Wilder urged a long-term "refocusing of state and local government on those activities which are essential and appropriate for government to deliver."

And on statewide television, the governor promised: "The size of government must and will decrease."

The slowing of revenues was not predicted by state forecasters and estimates of the severity of the problem have risen several times during Wilder's seven months in office. While the governor has defended the forecasts, Republican legislators particularly have complained that Wilder and his Democratic predecessor, Gerald L. Baliles, should have anticipated the slowdown.

"I am flabbergasted, dismayed and appalled that the people who made these projections can make a $1.4 billion error," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-McLean). Given recent errors, he said, "I have no reason to believe what they're telling us now."

Meanwhile, local government and school officials in Northern Virginia are losing patience. Wilder has served notice that they'll suffer under his budget ax. However, he has not provided the specifics the locals say they need to begin planning and to answer questions from constituents worried about how many teachers there will be, when new roads will be built and what will happen to mental health programs.

"I find it hard to ascertain what the plan is," said state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon). "I had assumed that when the governor made that {television} speech, we'd be getting some fairly detailed specifics."

No one is suggesting that the cooling of tax revenue -- now estimated to grow at a rate of about 3 percent annually instead of the booming 10 percent or more during much of the 1980s -- isn't a real problem.

Still, while the state's own analysts say they do not think that Virginia is in a recession, some political opponents suggest that Wilder is amplifying the concerns to underline his skill at solving problems.

"I'm very cynical about all this," said Callahan, who said he thinks Wilder is trying to convince people that "the sky is falling" so that when the economy improves, Wilder will look like "a hero."

On Friday, Wilder said people who think he is using the state's fiscal crunch for political reasons are "warped and twisted cynics."

Wilder's own assessments of the situation, though, have seemed a bit contradictory.

In July, Wilder described the state's fiscal condition as the "worst since World War II." But during his televised address 10 days ago, he assured the public that he didn't want to "paint a picture of crisis."

The governor's heavy out-of-state travel schedule is one reason most political observers think that Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, intends to play a role in national politics.

Avoiding tax increases, many analysts contend, is the central element in Wilder's strategy. This allows Wilder to contrast his performance with President Bush's flip on the famous "read my lips" pledge, as well as that of other Democrats, such as New Jersey Gov. James Florio, who was also elected in 1989 and began pursuing tax increases shortly after his election.

Last week, Wilder urged a convention of local officials -- nearly all of them elected with margins far greater than Wilder's one-half of one percentage point -- not to raise local taxes to offset the impact of state budget cuts.

Meanwhile, a resolution promoted by state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Goldman, a Wilder confidant, calls on national Democrats to go on record against federal tax increases to pay for "Republican mismanagement of the nation's finances."

"While it's clearly risky to raise taxes," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, there could be a heavy cost at home and nationally if after four years Wilder is "seen as being a stand-patter in state politics . . . always looking for the last nickel to cut."

Wilder has also said the dearth of revenue will preclude, at least for the early part of his term, any major initiatives on issues at the forefront of the Northern Virginia agenda: transportation or education.

Virginia governors are constitutionally barred from seeking reelection, which lowers the political cost of alienating key interest groups. But some say the governor's remarks so far have understated the pain that individuals will bear.

"Government expenses cannot be cut by 5 percent with no tax increases without some real pain for real people," said state Sen. Dudley J. "Buzz" Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt).

Some of Wilder's savings, moreover, are being seen as short-term fixes, legislators say. Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), for example, questioned Wilder's plan to spend lottery profits on day-to-day expenses, rather than for long-term building projects as originally planned.

"Virginia's governor, whoever he or she might be, has got to be one of the most powerful governors in the nation," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), who thinks Wilder has been "evenhanded" in his efforts so far to find savings.

"It's impossible to assess when you don't know the details," Andrews said. "We're still waiting."

Staff writer Donald P. Baker contributed to this report.