Celebrating the end of Democratic rule in Virginia on Tuesday night, Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) exclaimed, "Free at last!" Yesterday, the Virginia NAACP told Gilmore that "a significant number of citizens are offended by your use of those words."

In a letter to Gilmore yesterday, King Salim Khalfani, the state NAACP's executive director, wrote that about 60 people had called his office to take issue with the governor's phrasing, which came directly from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech given at the Lincoln Memorial 36 years ago.

Callers were both black and white, he said.

"In the African American community," the letter read, "that statement is held sacred because it represents an ideal that still does not exist."

Mark A. Miner, the governor's spokesman, said the Tuesday night speech was meant to unite, not divide.

"This was a historic night," Miner said. "The elections were historic. The elections are a historic time for the commonwealth. And the speech was intended to unite as has been the governor's theme throughout his administration. And the governor has had a close working relationship with the NAACP throughout his service in office."

Miner said the governor did not plan to apologize for the remark, in part because the letter did not ask for an apology.

Khalfani said his organization did not insist on an apology because it wanted to leave the matter "in [Gilmore's] hands."

"So far his spin-masters are giving comments," Khalfani said. "The governor made his remarks publicly, and I think he needs to address this issue publicly so that people can hear it and not just stand by his spokesperson. . . . So many times, we give people the answers. We left it open-ended to see just how inclusive and humane he chooses to be."

Asked if an apology was in order, Khalfani said, "I would think so when you offend a significant number of people."

Miner responded that Gilmore should not have to apologize for trying to unite Virginia. "It's unfortunate people misunderstood the governor's intentions here," he said.