RICHMOND, DEC. 10 -- A federal judge excused Attorney General Mary Sue Terry today from defending Virginia Military Institute's all-male admissions policy.

But it will take some time before Terry is free from the political hook on which she has been dangling since the Justice Department began its assualt against single-sex admissions at the taxpayer-supported school, according to political activists and observers.

U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser in Roanoke today approved Terry's request that she be replaced by three lawyers who have agreed to take the case free: Robert H. Patterson Jr. of Richmond, James Daniel of Danville and Joel Kline of Washington.

The attorney general, who plans to run for governor in 1993, has acknowledged that representing the rural Lexington school hurt her politically. A variety of critics and even some supporters agree the awkward circumstances of her exit from the case only added to the damage.

Critics said Terry's legal rationale -- that she could no longer represent VMI after Gov. L. Douglas Wilder condemned single-sex admissions -- was questionable. Wilder left Terry, a fellow Democrat, stranded by disputing her claim that she had a conflict of interest.

"She's just very fortunate this didn't come in the middle of the campaign," said state Sen. Mark L. Earley, a Chesapeake Republican and a possible candidate for attorney general in 1993. "The VMI issue for her has been what the abortion issue was for Marshall Coleman," the losing GOP candidate for governor in 1993.

Like Coleman, Terry has left many people thinking that she vacillated on a difficult issue, and was so eager to limit the political damage that she ended up pleasing no one.

"She left the impression that she lacked the political fortitude to stick with her position," said Tom Morris, a University of Richmond political scientist and VMI graduate.

Terry, who has declined to state her personal views about single-sex admissions, originally said her responsibilities as attorney general required her to defend VMI no matter what the political consequences.

Those consequences became more evident after Terry came under heavy criticism from women and progressive elements in the Democratic Party. When Wilder ended months of silence by saying he was personally opposed to all-male admissions, Terry seized the moment to say she had no choice but to drop out of the case.

That position didn't ring true with Wilder, or with many scholars and politicians. "There's no reason to have an elected attorney general unless that person can make legal and political judgments independent of the governor," said Morris, who has made the study of attorneys general an academic specialty.

Terry, the first woman to be elected to statewide office in Virginia, has led the Democratic ticket with wide victory margins in 1985 and 1989. But what might have been a clear road to the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1993 has been complicated by the election of Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr., a political novice who galloped to an upset victory last year.

Beyer, who has not said whether he plans to challenge Terry for governor, also came out last month against all-male admissions.

For any politician, the VMI case presents delicate trade-offs. The school has strong allegiances among the state's old-line establishment, who contribute to political campaigns. But the all-male policy is increasingly unpopular with voters in Northern Virginia and other urban sections of what is often termed "the New Dominion."

State Sen. Emilie F. Miller (D-Fairfax), a Terry admirer but a staunch VMI critic, said Northern Virginians see the case as an issue of "tax dollars for discrimination."

"I told her at the beginning that this issue would hurt her," Miller said. "You can only find out on Election Day."