Early this summer, Virginia Attorney General John Marshall Coleman found himself stranded on Interstate 95 with a flat tire. Anxious to get to Fredericksburg for his second speech of the day, Virginia's third-ranking state official stuck out his thumb and hitched a ride with a passing motorist.

Within hours, the tale of Coleman's adventure had found its way - via a Coleman aide - onto news wires and thence to the newspapers and broadcasting stations across Virginia.

It was a quintessential Coleman performance, brimming with resourcefulness, determination, a sure sense of direction and an unerring instinct for media appeal.

Despite a mere nine months in office, Virginia's first Republican attorney general has made it clear he intends to keep his profile high and his sights on the future.

His slightly seedy office in the Virginia Supreme Court building overlooks the Governor's Mansion - a factor Coleman capriciously points out to visitors.

"I don't want the symbolism lost on anyone," he says.

In Virginia, the political landscape usually has all the drama of a field of corn, and Coleman sticks out like a highrise building of mirrored glass.

Tall and rangy, with boyish good looks and the self-deprecating wit of an underfinanced Kennedy, the 36-year-old Staunton native come across as sharp, with-it and bright.

"It's a great job," he says of the attorney generalship. "It's all inside work and there's no heavy lifting . . . Of course, it helps if you're ruthless."

Coleman and his wife, Nikki, contrast sharply with most of the state's leading political figures in their appearance of youth, vigor and urban sophistication. They live in a Victorian townhouse in Richmond's trendy Fan District - a picturesque neighborhood reminiscent of Georgetown or Capitol Hill - where they go bike-riding together regularly.

Coleman makes his own breakfast, takes out his own garbage and is fond of actor John Belushi of "Saturday Night Live."

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia and an ex-Vietnam marine, he thrives on debate, savoring abstract discussions of political and social movements with a relish shown by few other well-known Virginia politicans.

"I think there's a place for someone in government who questions and prods for change," he says. "That's how I see my role."

Coleman already has triggered enough changes to shake many in Virginia's educational and legal establishment and to reinforce his image as one of the state's most ambitious officeholders in recent times.

As Gov. John N. Dalton's chief legal adviser, he played a major role in resolving an impasse with the federal government over desegregation "goals" in Virginia's state colleges and universities.

Former Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. strongly had resisted the suggestion of any such goals by the U.S. government and Dalton in his campaign had pledged to carry on the fight.

Shortly after he was elected, however, Dalton backed down to the dismay of his conservative supporters. Coleman has been blamed by some and praised by others for the shift.

More recently, the attorney general sent shock waves through the state's legal establishment when he replaced many lawyers doing state highway condemenation cases for 20 years and many were law partners or cronies of Byrd organization conservatives who had controlled the state since before Coleman was born.

Some knowledge Republicans say that Coleman's action has cost GOP Senate nominee John W. Warner the support of some Byrd Democrats who frequently have supported Republicans in recent elections.

Such actions have not improved his already-strained relations with the state's Democratic-controlled legislature, where conservative patriarch Sen. Edward E. Willey, 68, of Richmond, once called Coleman "the most dangerous man ever to run for office in Virginia."

Coleman appears to relish his role as a wave-maker, and needles his critics with the same irreverence he displays toward himself.

"St. Mark's gospel couldn't be adopted in the Virginia legislature today," he says. "It would be nit-picked to death."

There are those who attribute Coleman's zest for confrontation to a combination of ambition and acute sensitivity to the political winds. Coleman, according to one Richmond attorney Patrick McSweeney, "lives and breathes politics through his pores."

McSweeney, a Republican recalled that Coleman ran for student council president at the University of Virginia, an office traditionally held and elected by fraternity members.

"Marshall was an independent and not particularly well-known," McSweneey said, "but he got together a bunch of other independents, plastered the grounds with posters and took the election."

Even there, he was prodding for change, helping form the Virginia Council on Human Relations when other student leaders considered any civil rights work vaguely Socialistic or worse.

Coleman's role in the college desegregation case further enhanced his standing with black Virginians, who voted for him more heavily than for any other state Republican in recent times except former Gov. Linwood Holton.

And while the settlement was criticized by a few General Assembly members and the Richmond newspapers, it was well received by most political figures weary of Virginia's persistent public image as a state bent on denying full rights to its nearly one million black citizens.

Last fall Coleman secured his black support while simultaneously campaigning heavily on law and order issues.

"Like Jerry Brown, he's the king of the buzz word," said Paul Goldman, who managed the campaign of Coleman's unsuccessful Democratic opponent, Edward E. Lane. "He knows how to use the phrases that carry the message in this age of televised campaigns without alarming either the right or the left."

Coleman has been less successful with the legislature, where he was an outspoken, acid-tongued junior member in a body that many say rewards docility and age.

One of his key campaign planks was his proposal for a uniform sentencing law, to set guidelines for judges to use in sentencing and end the present system, which often produces widely varying sentences for the same crime.

When that proposal hit the General Assembly, Coleman concedes, "it was pretty effectively blown out of the water."

He has also drawn the ire of some state agency heads who say they often find him inaccessible when they need prompt legal advice, particularly when compared with his Democratic predecessor, Andrew P. Miller.

Coleman used to criticize Miller for having expanded the office of the attorney general vastly during his eight years in office, and promised last year to cut the staff by 10 percent.

So far, he has not done so. Anson Franklin, Coleman's administrator and former campaign manager, said the promised cut has been delayed pending consolidation of the office's 17 separate locations into one. Office space for the move, Franklin says, has not been available.

Coleman has dropped a request by his predecessor for five years new staff attorneys - a move his supporters say has "saved the taxpayers $120,000 a year."

It seems unlikely that anything Coleman will do in the $45,000-a-year post of attorney general will fascinate his detractors or friends as much as his political dexterity.

The other day, while the rest of his party leaders were pushing to the political right in their efforts to elect John Warner to the U.S. Senate, Coleman - who has also campaigned for Warner - was having his picture taken at the University of Virginia with former U.S. senator Eugene J. McCarthy, who inhabits the other end of the political spectrum.

"That boy is just plain slick," said a veteran Richmond lobbyist after Coleman complete his race from nowhere to become attorney general.

J. Harvie Wilkson III, a supporter, historian and editor of The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot sees it another way: "The trait I admire most in politics is the willingness to examine issues on facts rather than through the idealogical lens," he said."Marshall has that trait.