Lt. Gov. John H. Hager will throw the first punch in the fight for the Republican nomination for Virginia's next governor with a major fund-raiser on Dec. 1 that he hopes will show unstoppable strength in money and party-wide support for the 2001 election.

Hager has worked feverishly recently to attract the state's prosperous lobbying community to his side, asking some individuals and business associations to give $5,000 to become "gold" sponsors of an evening gala designed as a tribute to his "Courage to Lead."

In doing so, Hager is trying to solve his party's riddle for 2001: Who shall it be, Hager or his only rival for the nomination, state Attorney General Mark L. Earley?

Hager believes a lightning-quick start will only help. Disabled by polio and still vigorous at 63, the retired tobacco industry executive stirred many voters with his stamina and spirit in the 1997 election of GOP candidates to all three statewide offices.

His ticket-mate, Gov. James S. Gilmore III, is approaching the midpoint of his four-year term and is criss-crossing the state on behalf of Republican candidates to capture a majority in the General Assembly next month.

Hager, too, has shared his financial contributions with Republican incumbents and challengers this year, but is even more firmly focused on the anticipated nomination struggle against Earley, 45, who was in South Carolina today and unavailable for comment.

"It certainly is a strength-shower," Hager said of the Richmond Marriott gala. "A lot of people are pleased by the option of John Hager as governor. We're getting an excellent reception."

In private meetings with prospective givers, Hager is describing his December dinner-dance as his principal fund-raising event for 2000, which is promising to be a big-dollar year for Republicans and Democrats alike. Additionally, the lieutenant governor is articulating his reasons why Earley should forgo a race, including the attorney general's relative youthfulness.

For his part, Earley, whose full-time duties make him far more office-bound than Hager, is now meeting privately with opinion-makers across Virginia to reiterate his strong commitment to the governor's race.

There is ample precedent for attorneys general of both parties to wait their turn by serving two terms--but Earley is decidedly against doing that, his Republican allies said this week.

After the Nov. 2 elections for all seats in the General Assembly, Earley will shut down his attorney general political action committee "and open an exploratory committee, but in due time," said Anne B. Kincaid, his chief political strategist. "We're trying to help every [legislative] wannabe" in the meantime, Kincaid said.

At the moment, both camps are proving adept at raising money.

The Hager Majority 99 PAC raised about $134,000 this year and the Friends of John Hager an additional $190,000, with many gifts from those pools then sent to legislative candidates.

Several political consultants also supped at Hager's table. Robert Goodman of Maryland, the media wizard for many Republican candidates over the years, was paid $12,000 in August for speech and media consulting. Randy Hinaman, Dick Leggitt and Tim Phillips--consultants well known to Virginia candidates--were on Hager's summer payroll, at roughly $2,000 each a month.

Earley's Campaign for Virginia's Future reported contributions totaling $350,000 by mid-September, with a balance of $187,000, which was going to dip sharply after gifts to candidates and a statewide radio buy of about $70,000, aides said.

Like Hager, Earley enjoyed support from Richmond business leaders, as well as several in Northern Virginia, including builder Bahman Batmanghelidj, of Sterling, who gave $1,000 in late August.

Hager, whose dinner sponsors range from the "platinum" givers of $10,000 to individuals paying $100, said he hopes the event will raise as much as $400,000. The dinner was timed to avoid conflicting with the holiday season, the forthcoming General Assembly session and most of all General Assembly elections, he added.

"We've been working our butt off" for legislative hopefuls, Hager said. "We have carefully avoided having any [negative] impact on races."

CAPTION: Lt. Gov. John H. Hager's fund-raiser has been scheduled for December.