ROANOKE, NOV. 30 -- Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, urgently trying to free herself from defending Virginia Military Institute's all-male admissions policy, tonight asked two private attorneys to take over those duties for free.

Terry made the request after Gov. L. Douglas Wilder earlier today refused to replace her with state-paid special counsel. Late tonight, Wilder vetoed Terry's choice of one of the lawyers, but said he would not object if she found another lawyer who would work for nothing.

Although Wilder has condemned the school's policy of excluding women students, he rejected his fellow Democrat's assertion that she has an "irreconcilable conflict" that prevents her from representing the school in a sex discrimination suit filed by the Justice Department.

Terry asked Wilder's own attorney in the VMI case, former U.S. attorney general Benjamin R. Civiletti, and Richmond lawyer Robert H. Patterson Jr., who represents the private VMI Foundation, to take over her defense of the state and the school. They could not be reached for comment on whether they would agree to take over.

Wilder said he will not allow Civiletti to represent VMI. His press secretary, Laura Dillard, said Wilder found it "inconceivable that counsel for the governor would represent any other entity in the proceedings."

Dillard said, however, that Wilder would not object if Terry could find other lawyers who would take over the defense at no cost to the state.

Terry has said she must withdraw because there is a conflict of interests between her clients in the discrimination suit: She says she represents Wilder as governor and the VMI Board of Visitors, and they disagree over the no-women admissions policy.

But Wilder, who last week broke a long silence by saying he favors the admission of women to VMI, rejected her argument. He said he is not being represented in the case by Terry, but by his own team of attorneys, and so there is no conflict for Terry.

The day of legal and political maneuvering began in a courtroom here this morning. U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser said Terry could leave the case if Wilder agreed to appoint a special counsel to replace her. The bad news for Terry came a few hours later when the governor gave his answer.

"The answer is no," Dillard said.

Wilder's action, which he is entitled to take under state law, killed an earlier plan that had been worked out for continuing the defense of VMI.

It also left Terry exactly where she doesn't want to be: in the middle of one of the most politically sensitive legal battles in Virginia since the racial desegregation cases of two decades ago.

VMI Foundation lawyer William B. Poss said Wilder has left "Mary Sue twisting slowly in the breeze."

VMI Board of Visitors President Joseph M. Spivey III, who on Thursday made a formal request to Wilder to appoint a special counsel, said today, "I don't know what happens next."

Terry's office and VMI officials had agreed that the defense of the taxpayer-funded school would be taken over by a group of lawyers already representing the VMI Foundation, a private fund-raising group opposed to the admission of women. That plan is now dead.

Terry, as the state's top legal officer, has been representing the school -- about four hours southwest of Washington in rural Lexington -- since it was sued by the federal government last winter. But she said Wilder's comments last week, including a threat to testify against VMI in court, undermined her legal case and forced her to request to drop out as chief lawyer.

Wilder, in blocking Terry's path today, noted that she had continued to represent VMI after Gov. Gerald L. Baliles came out against the school's all-male admissions in 1989. Baliles's "comments were to no avail and proved no threat to the continuance of litigation," a statement from Wilder said.

Wilder and Terry have been political rivals in the past. As lieutenant governor, Wilder sparred frequently with the attorney general, who was viewed as his potential rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1989 until she took herself out of the running.