A person didn't have to read Doug Wilder's lips yesterday to catch the familiar refrain: "necessities before niceties."

The Virginia governor used the phrase nine times during a three-hour "Open House" at George Mason University in Fairfax County, in which students and members of the public were invited to raise their concerns.

Education cuts? Help for state employees? Local governments? How about the future of the Democratic Party?

"We are trying to put necessities before niceties" found its way into each answer, as the governor, who has foresworn tax increases and opted for budget cuts, made his case to the participants. He has urged other municipal leaders to trim the "hard fat that feels like muscle" and said he will travel the nation to get his message across.

To help pay the tab and boost the governor's national profile, Wilder's top political adviser recently started a political action committee called "The Committee for Fiscal Responsibility in 1992" -- the year of the next presidential election.

Wilder repeatedly hammered away at the theme of fiscal responsibility as he and his traveling Cabinet greeted about 50 Virginians who braved the wet weather to meet him at George Mason and ask a question, seek advice, get indignant or simply say hello and have their pictures taken.

Talk of the White House was clearly in the air. Jeff Dion, 23, a law student at George Mason, begged Wilder to run for president. An hour later, Steve Roberts, of Woodbridge, asked the governor to pose for a picture with him and his son, saying, "Next year, we probably won't be able to get this close to you."

It was the latest in a series of open houses that the governor began in July, after negative publicity concerning his travels outside of Virginia and his use of the state helicopter for personal business.

The governor covered a lot of ground yesterday, taking on President Bush for vetoing the civil rights bill and agreeing to new taxes, and criticizing former drug control policy director William Bennett, saying he "gave up on the {drug} war before it started."

At the same time, Wilder answered questions on author Ayn Rand and later danced around questions about his own aspirations for national office, saying, "It's too early" because he "must establish some degree of record."

On statewide affairs, Wilder said his office will be making a statement this week on a new approach to transportation problems, including mention of how to pay for improvements. A Wilder-backed proposal to sell state pledge bonds to fund transportation improvements was defeated in Tuesday's election.

The governor also said he supports the University of Virginia in whatever decision it makes concerning a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona.

Kellye Curtis and Sharon Thompson, both George Mason juniors, got the "niceties" treatment when they asked the governor to justify his cuts in state education spending, which have resulted in a hiring freeze at George Mason.

"The answers were long-winded," said Thompson, a government and politics major.

About half the participants at yesterday's meeting were Thompson's classmates, and many of them had the same concerns about education cuts.

In the midst of the concerns over budget cuts, Harold F. Leiendecker, of Fairfax, strode briskly toward the governor, shook his hand and said, "I want to thank you for holding down government expenditures, and that's all I have to say to you."

As Wilder's Cabinet applauded, Leiendecker left as quickly as he entered.

He didn't even stay long enough to get an autographed photo.