RICHMOND -- Before Gov. L. Douglas Wilder took office a year ago this week, he shaved the mustache he had worn most of his life.

Wilder said the new look was just a coincidence. But many concluded that the clean shave was symbolic, that Wilder's softened appearance would be accompanied by a softened approach. The combative candidate was expected to become a conciliatory leader, satisfied to savor his historic triumph as the nation's first elected black governor.

But far from relaxing his ambition, Wilder has used his management of a fiscal crisis as the centerpiece of an undeclared but unmistakable campaign for national office.

Mustache or not, all the traits that marked his climb to the pinnacle of power in Virginia have reappeared: a history of punishing rivals, flirtations with avoidable ethical controversies, a penchant for secrecy.

Wilder, who in his inaugural address triumphantly declared, "I am a son of Virginia," has in the intervening 12 months journeyed to Iowa, New Hampshire, California and New York, traditionally important states in the presidential nominating process.

Beginning Wednesday, the governor's attention necessarily will be focused closer to home, as the General Assembly meets to deal with a record $1.9 billion revenue shortfall.

Such budget problems often are catastrophic for governors. But Wilder's aides say he is convinced that the crisis gives him an opportunity to build a national reputation as a Democrat who can win support from moderates and conservatives by cutting spending and avoiding tax increases.

Wilder boasts that he has "established the largest reserve in state's history, balanced the budget without raising taxes, without significant layoffs, without serious curtailment in the delivery of services." He adds that he hasn't even thought about proposing a tax increase.

Despite Wilder's view that "support in the public is awesome" for his approach, a recent poll gave Wilder an approval rating of just under 50 percent.

Among the skeptics is Wilder's predecessor, fellow Democrat Gerald L. Baliles.

"The state's security does not rest in a safe-deposit box," he said of Wilder's austere policies, including his insistence on maintaining a $200 million reserve fund. The state's future, according to Baliles, "depends on programs for education, children, roads and the environment" -- programs threatened by Wilder budget cuts.

"Every governor in the country is having budget problems. Virginia's are less severe than some other states'," Baliles said.

Avon Drake, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, attributed part of Wilder's fame outside the state to his status as the nation's highest-ranking black elected official. "As the novelty of his ethnicity wears off, people will focus on what he's actually doing," Drake said.

Such comments are not uncommon from Virginians who wonder what Wilder is doing beyond trying to manage the budget problems. The growing revenue shortfall has overshadowed anything else that may have been on Wilder's policy agenda.

"You have to acknowledge that there isn't the money for 'New Frontier,' pioneer-busting government," said state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon), who nonetheless faults Wilder for devoting little imagination or interest to the substance of state government. "It's been opportunism from Day 1."

Wilder proclaimed the 1990s as the "Decade of Youth and Families," and he has talked about the need to attack drug abuse and reduce educational and economic disparities between the state's rich and poor areas. His "Agenda for Virginia," a pamphlet released last fall, has a long list of ideas for social service, environmental and law enforcement programs.

But there has been little action on most of his ideas, some of which are warmed-over proposals from his predecessors. And Wilder has said that as far as he's concerned, any solutions to those problems won't involve spending much state money.

Those criticisms stand in contrast to the glowing acceptance Wilder gets on the national scene.

Seldom does a week go by that Wilder isn't mentioned on national television or the newsmagazines, attention that is almost always flattering and that almost never examines his record in running the state.

Wilder's "straight-ahead approach to his own ambitions is refreshing," said Newsweek political reporter Howard Fineman. "Reporters like it because he's out there" at a time when few other Democrats are competing for attention in advance of the 1992 campaign, Fineman said.

Such comments reflect the initial success of Wilder's media-driven political style. Wilder and his longtime political aide, Paul Goldman, have become masters of the quick hit, speaking out early and often on the Persian Gulf or whatever issue happens to be dominating the week's news.

Beneath all the headlines, though, it can be hard to discern the ideological moorings of Wilder's policies. The governor won praise from civil rights activists last May by apparently ordering state agencies to unload their investments in South Africa; four months later, it turned out the divestiture was voluntary.

Many feminists, likewise, were pleased that Wilder came out against male-only admissions at Virginia Military Institute, but still wonder why it took 18 months of political pressure before he did.

Robert Holsworth, a Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist who tracks Wilder, said "it's really mistaken to suggest that {Wilder's performance} is merely 'the death of a liberal.' For six or eight years, he's shown a willingness to move rightward if it will help his interests."

If Wilder is subject to more scrutiny than other governors, as he insists he is, it's also plain that no recent Virginia chief executive has enjoyed the job more.

He has become a member of the glitterati. Although he says he works seven days a week, the state police helicopter assigned to him is a familiar site at Washington Redskins home games.

His reported romance with Charlottesville socialite Patricia Kluge has been a staple of the gossip columns. Wilder rejects the tag of eligible bachelor, saying that as a 59-year-old divorced father of three grown children, he is more like "an exhausted rooster."

Wilder said he has been surprised by "the attention to detail required" of the governor, and said he often stays in his office until 10 or 11 p.m. Aides say he still finds time to watch a ballgame or a favorite television show, such as "Jeopardy!"

When he leaves the Statehouse at night, more often than not it is for his home on Richmond's north side, rather than the executive mansion, which is only a short walk across the lawn. He estimates he has spent only 30 nights in the mansion since taking office last Jan. 13.

"I've got my dogs," Wilder says in explaining his preference for spending nights at his home.

Wilder's ability to stay loose in a job that invites stiffness and formality is part of his personality that even adversaries find charming. But there is another side that many find less appealing.

Wilder, who as a legislator developed a taste for intrigue, hasn't changed his style. Often the governor's target isn't the GOP, but fellow Democrats.

When Wilder scuttled a proposed railroad merger, he said it was because it was a bad deal for the state; its retirement fund owned a large amount of stock in one of the firms. Later, however, his chief of staff, J.T. Shropshire, was quoted as saying that a main reason for Wilder's interference was to embarrass state Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), a rival who was an architect of the deal.

Wilder offered little help to another Democrat, Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, as she attempted to untangle herself from the legal defense of VMI in a sex discrimination suit filed by the federal government.

After Terry said she had a conflict of interest and appealed to the governor to appoint a new lawyer, Wilder scoffed at her claim and declined to replace her.

"These are people he feels may have slighted him in the past," said Virginia Commonwealth's Holsworth. "Now that he's on top, he's going to exercise every ounce of power he's got."

Although Virginia Democrats are accustomed to Wilder's attacks, national Democrats are just getting a taste. Party Chairman Ronald H. Brown got a nasty letter from Wilder after he backed a failed federal budget compromise last October. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo was lampooned by Goldman as a "Wall Street Democrat" for supporting a decrease in the capital gains tax. Jesse L. Jackson has been ridiculed by Wilder as a gadfly.

Another potential problem for Wilder may be his preference for secrecy. Legislators have complained about Wilder's refusal to share budget information. After news stories revealed his frequent use of state aircraft for personal travel, state pilots were ordered to stop filling out charts that told where and with whom Wilder was traveling. That decision was reversed after a public tussle. Currently, Wilder is appealing a judge's order overturning his decision to keep records of his office's phone calls hidden from public view.

Wilder's most prominent battle over disclosure has been his refusal to make public how much money -- estimated at more than $1.5 million -- he raised from dozens of lobbyists, corporations and others who do business with state government at last year's inaugural ball.

Wilder clearly is bothered by such questions. "If I'm guilty of something, tell me what it is," he demanded.

But his ire seldom lingers. Even when facing questions about touchy subjects, Wilder frequently bursts into laughter, rebuking reporters with his favorite rejoinder, "You are sooo bad."