The surprise proposal by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) for a new state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began its legislative journey tonight when black lawmakers announced they were preparing a bill to establish a commemorative day around a weekend near King's Jan. 15 birthdate.

Del. William P. Robinson Jr. (D-Norfolk) said his measure would not create a midweek holiday but instead would schedule one early or late in a week, as close "as practicable" to the birthday of the slain civil rights leader.

Robinson, an African American and son of a famed civil rights leader, made the announcement after emerging from a closed hour-long meeting of the Legislative Black Caucus. He said passage of the bill was all but assured, given Gilmore's endorsement during his annual address to the General Assembly on Wednesday.

"Quite clearly, without the weight and the influence of the governor, it might not fare as well," Robinson said. "But when the standard-bearer of the state is behind it, it brings the reality of a separate holiday that much closer."

The governor's announcement sprang from weeks of internal discussion, years of friendship with Virginia's best known black political leader and an impulse to reach out to African Americans while preserving his staunchly conservative base, according to senior aides in the administration.

As an added benefit, Gilmore's proposal left Democrats flat-footed.

"He's doing a little pandering," said Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax). "He is trying to erode our base."

King's birthday and how to celebrate it have long been contested issues in Virginia and other states. The controversy is still smoldering in South Carolina, which has not established a King state holiday. New Hampshire last year created a state holiday after heated debate.

And in Virginia, the unusual combination of a holiday to commemorate King and Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson emerged after years of wrangling.

Virginia lawmakers of both parties said they would support Gilmore's proposal, calling it an important gesture toward the state's African Americans.

"It's symbolic," said Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun). "But its symbolism is significant. Martin Luther King deservedly should be recognized separately. . . . This governor wants to heal some wounds that reach back a generation, and this is an important way of sending that signal."

Republicans were not uniformly supportive of the governor's proposal. "I've got so much on my plate," said Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), a veteran lawmaker who heads the powerful Senate Finance Committee. "I don't have any thoughts on it."

Democrats expressed mixed views on Gilmore's proposal.

C. Richard Cranwell (Roanoke), the House Democratic minority leader, raised questions about the cost of the holiday. "It appears to be a rather innocuous thing," Cranwell said. "I want to know what it's going to cost the state."

Gilmore has proven adept at stealing Democrats' issues and throwing the opposing party off balance. Transportation had been viewed as a Democratic issue--until the governor came up with his own plan to spend $2.5 billion over six years. Same with scrapping the food tax, which Gilmore adopted as his own.

The governor's efforts to reach out to the black community are earning him praise from civil rights leaders who have long been critical of Virginia's Republicans.

Gilmore received widespread criticism for a line he stole from King on election night in November, when Republicans took control of all branches of government for the first time since Reconstruction. "Free at last!" he called out when the general election results were in.

King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia state conference of the NAACP, said that Republicans in Richmond had long been unsympathetic to his group's concerns and that the King proposal is a positive sign.

"We don't really have a King holiday here," Khalfani said. "It's been the butt of jokes. It stigmatizes that day and makes Virginia look like it is stuck in the past. . . . The Confederates have not given up yet."

Rep. John Lewis (R-Ga.), who was active in the civil rights movement, said that a conservative governor in a conservative state seeking separate recognition for King's birthday says "something about the distance we have come, the progress we have made."

Gilmore spokesman Mark A. Miner said, "The governor has shown he can be a conservative governor and be inclusive."

Khalfani and other civil rights activists want the King holiday to remain on the third Monday in January. The Sons of Confederate Veterans want the Lee-Jackson tribute to remain on the same day.

"Lee and Jackson are the two Virginians here," said Robert W. Barbour, commander of the Virginia division of the group. "Martin Luther King is not."

Gilmore proposed the King holiday after consulting with former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), the nation's first elected black governor. As a legislator from Richmond in the 1970s and 1980s, Wilder worked hard to secure passage of a stand-alone holiday for King, but by 1984 had to settle for a Lee-Jackson-King day on the third Monday in January, which became the federal King holiday as well.

"Some people believe it's a sop," to lump all three historical figures into one holiday, Wilder said. "It's offensive to all."

The Gilmore-Wilder alliance may seem unusual, but it pays practical dividends for both politicians. For Gilmore, the friendship with Wilder helps develop his record as an inclusive governor. Gilmore has helped an impoverished black town on the Eastern Shore, offered significant financial aid to two historically black colleges and proposed measures to close the "digital divide" between rich and poor Internet customers.

Gilmore has just penned a state budget that includes $1 million for a national slavery museum in Jamestown, a pet project of Wilder, the grandson of slaves. The Gilmore connection also allows Wilder, elected in 1989 during the heyday of Virginia Democrats, to gig activists in what he now regards as a moribund party.