Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is rapidly emerging as the sharpest Democratic politician in the country, and President George Bush better start paying attention. Doug Wilder is no Mike Dukakis.

He's got at least two things that in this political climate are going to make for a redoubtable combination: He has charisma that won't quit and he is very smart. And he is quickly carving out a role for himself as the most highly visible critic of President Bush's veto of the Civil Rights Act, his most costly so far.

While the veto helped get Sen. Jesse Helms reelected as a Republican from North Carolina, it enabled Wilder to come to Washington a week after the election and blast the "Bush-Helms axis," as "the New Extremism."

Wilder clearly is playing to a national audience these days, and he is reinforcing his reputation as a champion of women's rights by rapidly distancing himself from the male-only admissions policy of the Virginia Military Institute. After U.S. District Judge Jackson L. Kiser ruled this month that Wilder would stay on as a co-defendant in the Justice Department's suit against the school, Wilder announced on Tuesday that he would not support VMI's policy and threatened to withhold state funds from it.

"I believe that no person should be denied admittance to a school supported by state funds solely because of his or her race or gender," he said.

Wilder had previously said that he did not believe his personal views on this controversy mattered. VMI graduates hold influential positions throughout the state government and are a risky group to alienate.

Wilder's denouncement of VMI's admissions policy has freed him to aggressively appeal to women voters across the country without the political embarrassment of having a state-funded institution that discriminates against women in his own back yard.

Women voters have consistently emerged as a pivotal group that winning candidates must court. In 1986, women voters elected nine Democratic senators and returned control of the Senate to the Democratic Party. In this year's election, 61 percent of Texas Gov.-Elect Ann Richards's votes came from women, which gave her the margin of victory over her opponent, who got only 45 percent of his votes from women. A New York Times-CBS exit poll found that in the votes for the House, 54 percent of the women voted for Democrats and 46 percent voted for Republicans.

Alice Travis, director of programs for the National Democratic Committee, says that the traditional campaign consultants are just beginning to understand the gender gap, but they have not figured out how to make the most of it. She thinks many of them still orchestrate campaigns the way they did 20 years ago when women tended to vote the way their husbands did.

"It will be important to start breaking down women into more logical and real groups and seeing what's of interest to them -- what are you concerned about if you are a senior woman, a working woman, a homemaker -- and doing it as aggressively as going after the blue-collar worker and the yuppie."

Fielding a woman candidate is not the answer, she said. "Women don't automatically say just because she has the same biological parts I have she will do what I believe in. Male consultants tend to blame women voters when they lose. That will remain a problem until they go after us."

Lynn Cutler, vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who worked on Sen. Tom Harkin's successful reelection campaign in Iowa, agrees: "He talked about issues of relevance to women and families. He talked about family and medical leave. In the last poll before the election, he was 14 points ahead with women."

She said the conventional political wisdom directing most campaigns is, "If their guy is good on the issues," he will capture "the women's vote," as though it were some monolith.

"There's not enough recognition of the hard, cold fact that you have to earn that vote," Cutler said. "You have to organize for it, fund it in campaign budgets, put stuff on the air that speaks to women voters and if you've done something early in the campaign to win women voters, you don't say we've got them and move on. You've got to come back and touch that base."

Bush's veto of the civil rights bill did not come early enough for the Democrats to make it a campaign issue with women voters, who were the ones who were most damaged by the veto of an act that would have made it easier to prove job discrimination in court. But there is plenty of time between now and 1992 to make the veto as important to women voters as abortion rights are today. Wilder's record on both of those issues is good, and with his public denouncement of VMI's policy, his record for women voters is only getting better.