RICHMOND -- One of the most electric moments in last year's race for governor took place outside public view, a clash not between the two candidates but within the campaign of Democrat L. Douglas Wilder.

August had been a long month of damaging news reports about the candidate's personal finances, centered on the fact that Wilder had failed to disclose some of the real estate he owned. Press secretary Laura Dillard recalls marching into a meeting with her boss frustrated and angry -- ready to quit if more such revelations seemed likely.

Dillard didn't quit. Instead, she said she left the meeting with new faith in Wilder's integrity. There were no more embarrassing disclosures. After his narrow November victory, she followed Wilder to the governor's office.

Dillard, a former Yale divinity school student who says she got into state politics virtually by accident, is now Wilder's official spokeswoman, is paid $65,000 a year, and is by all accounts one of the two or three most influential aides in the new administration.

She turned 25 this summer.

These days, as the youngest person in memory to hold such a central role in state government, Dillard said those dispiriting times a year ago seem far away.

"I was tired and burned out and we had a disagreement," she said. Yet her decision to press her concerns with Wilder, as she sees it now, may have been pivotal in forging the trust and rapport they share today.

"Politics is a roller coaster. You've got to expect ups and downs," Wilder said he told Dillard, adding that only she could decide whether he deserved her loyalty.

It's a partnership built around striking contrasts. Wilder, a black male politician who grew up in an inner-city Richmond neighborhood steeped in the segregation of the Old South, has chosen as his major-domo a white female suburbanite 34 years his junior.

Wilder is a master charmer. Dillard's style is detached and terse, and even friends acknowledge that her considerable self-confidence occasionally comes off as a holier-than-thou attitude.

The governor is a polished pragmatist with clear ambitions on the national stage, a politician who has told associates that one of his favorite texts is Machiavelli's "The Prince."

His spokeswoman is a left-leaning intellectual who maintains she would be just as happy immersed in 19th-century German theology as she is working in state government.

Planning a return someday to academic life, Dillard said she worries that her tenure in the hard-hitting precincts of capital politics, where expediency and self-interest are valued most, may distort her idealism.

Yet the two different personalities have found common ground. On most issues, Dillard is the only person in the administration authorized to speak for the governor.

On Wilder's frequent speaking trips throughout the nation, Dillard -- an unimposing presence, standing a little over five feet tall -- is nearly always by his side. On everything from the governor's schedule to major policy decisions, gubernatorial aides say Dillard's voice often proves decisive.

Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, said his choice of someone so young is consistent with the pattern of his career, devoted to breaking down barriers.

"I didn't want someone who was jaded as to what conventional wisdom says and does," he said. "That's one of the things I respect in her -- she holds her view."

The pair met a little over three years ago. Dillard, who graduated from a suburban Richmond high school in 1983, had graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1987 and was headed for graduate work at Yale. Always interested in politics as a hobby, if not a career, she spent a summer as a "Governor's Fellow," an internship.

Perhaps because state officials didn't know what else to do with a religion major, Dillard speculates, she was assigned to the office of then-Lt. Gov. Wilder, who was preparing for his campaign for governor.

The two hit it off, and Dillard deferred divinity school for a year to continue working with Wilder. She says their rapport is based on a mutual fascination with politics and a similar sense of humor that makes it easy for them to communicate.

"He's never patronized me," Dillard said. "I respect his mind.

"I love sitting around and listening to him . . . . You've given him a piece of information, he immediately sees the implications of that, the nuances."

At the end of the extended internship, Dillard went back to school. But after a year at Yale, Wilder urged her to return to work on his campaign for governor as press secretary.

Dillard was ripe for the offer. The professor she had hoped to study under died suddenly of a heart attack. Dillard chose instead to devote her energies to Wilder, the man she calls "my greatest teacher, there's no doubt about that."

What a difference a few years makes. As a conservative youth -- "I've definitely changed my political stripes," she says -- Dillard regarded Wilder, then representing Richmond in the state Senate, as an opportunist and a "publicity hound."

Dwight C. Holton -- another of the young staffers who worked on the Wilder campaign, took jobs in government and call themselves the "Children's Crusade" -- says Dillard "is probably one of the governor's closest friends."

Wilder's campaign consultant, Frank Greer, recalls cringing when he learned that the candidate's press secretary was only 23 years old. But he said Dillard's natural flair for politics in the race against Republican J. Marshall Coleman quickly changed his view. "She's got a remarkable toughness," said Greer.

On the wall of her office today, there is a framed newspaper article with the headline, "Wilder's Press Secretary Calls Coleman a Liar."

"She's a battler," agreed Wilder's Chief of Staff J.T. Shropshire. "She's young, but she's a workaholic, a loyalist extraordinaire. The governor likes that."

Dillard sometimes betrays doubts that "political battler" is exactly the way she wants to be known in life. "I sit around and worry about politics changing me in ways I don't like," she said. "I don't ever want my perception of myself to be connected with my job."

Dillard's workday usually starts about 7:30, when she briefs Wilder by telephone on that morning's news stories. Frequently, she says, she is on the phone with reporters or by Wilder's side until 10 in the evening or later.

For all of her importance in the administration, Dillard remains an enigma to many who work with her, including reporters who deal with her every day for news about the administration.

Dillard's voice, a slightly gravelly monotone, rarely wavers, even when she is being grilled with hostile questions. No member of the capital news corps ever recalls seeing her lose composure.

"She's so low-key, she's fairly inscrutable," said Richmond television reporter Jim Babb. "She's quiet, reserved . . . . For someone so young, she's remarkably unflappable."

Dillard's stoic personal style is accentuated by her plain dress. But when her guard is down, Dillard has a wit and flair that make her engaging company. "She's incredibly intelligent, and she's incredibly funny," said Holton, a Dillard confidant. "You guys {in the press} don't see that."

When she has time to herself, Dillard said she'd prefer to spend it with family or a small core of friends. Dillard, who is single, recently bought a house on a half-acre wooded tract just two miles from her family home in Chesterfield County. (Her father is a manager at Du Pont, her mother a homemaker.)

"I'm not inhuman, in that respect," Dillard said. Her seemingly standoffish attitude, she says, is merely a way of preserving the professional distance that properly exists between reporters and public officials. "I don't think friendship is a question that can be broached . . . ," she said.

It's not camaraderie that reporters seek from those who speak for politicians, it's information. And on that score, the eight-month-old administration frequently has had tense relations with the news media.

On controversies ranging from Wilder's refusal to disclose the profits he made from his inaugural festivities, to his use of state aircraft for personal travel, Dillard has responded often to inquiries with a curt no comment.

Though Dillard was plainly carrying out Wilder's wishes, the administration's stonewalling raised suspicions and caused news organizations to pursue the controversies even more vigorously.

"I don't think they think anything out," Republican operative Steve Haner said about the Wilder team. "I get the impression they just do things, and then react" to controversy as it arises.

The administration's attempts to get national publicity also have ruffled feathers.

Mo Donaldson, a radio reporter for the Virginia News Network, recalls when Dillard gave advance notice to the New York Times -- but kept state journalists in the dark -- when Wilder was issuing a major statement ordering state agencies to unload their investments in South Africa. Donaldson and several other reporters read Dillard the riot act.

"I learned a lot from that episode," Dillard says with a smile.

But she notes that the political nature of her job makes conflict with the press inevitable. "My job is to present the view of the governor," she said. "I'm not a public information officer. I'm not offering 'just the facts, ma'am, and nothing but the facts.' "

And the scholarly books she keeps on a shelf in her office remind her that there is more to her life than the hurly-burly of political controversies and anxiety about the next day's headlines.

"I'm pretty schizophrenic . . . . I'm as comfortable sitting by myself and reading {Protestant theologian} Karl Barth as I am doing this," she said. "I like the fact that I've been able to travel in two different worlds."