Three months after taking office, Socialist Governor Leonel Brizola has embarked on an ambitious education and social welfare program as his chief priority, which sidesteps potential conflicts with the federal administration while reinforcing his growing personality cult in the leading opposition state.

Brizola's program, which has attracted the attention of the World Bank, turns the emphasis away from Rio's chic beachfront districts to the favelas, or slums, where 36 percent of the state's population live and which were a source of support for his surprise election victory last November.

Brizola plans to build 500 schools and 1,000 kindergartens in slum areas, and to develop three large community centers in the city. They will serve growing numbers of children abandoned by the overloaded public education system who represent a reservoir of future social discontent.

When Brizola, 62, a symbol of opposition to the military that has ruled Brazil since 1964, took power along with other opposition state governors in March, he acted fast. An abandoned high-rise hotel with a panoramic view of Rio's smartest neighborhoods was requisitioned.

The unfinished hotel will become the first brizolao, or "big Brizola"--a school, sports center, teacher training nucleus and welfare unit that will deal with the social problems of the city's poor in full view of Ipanema's luxury apartment blocks.

The architect of Rio's educational and cultural policies is Vice Governor Darcy Ribeiro, 62, who was the second figure in the populist government of Joao Goulart toppled by the military in 1964, after which he spent a decade in exile. As former education minister and the creator of Brasilia's university, Ribeiro considers himself to be taking up an interrupted task.

"I opted for Brizola because he represents the path we were following 20 years ago," said Ribeiro, who described himself as an "atypical intellectual" because of his years in the Amazon forest in anthropological studies.

"Rio likes the Copacabana image, but the news is that it's suddenly accepting that it's a poor city," said Ribeiro, who recalled that a key theme in last year's election was Brizola's "indignation when he spoke of delinquent, hungry children with no schools."

Rio's public education system, where three-quarters of the children flunk literacy tests to enter third grade, is breaking down under the overload and under a shift system that provides children with just 2 1/2 hours of schooling daily.

In contrast, the private education system ensures that 80 percent of children acquire basic skills, in part because these schools receive more federal aid than the public system. Brizola's promise of five hours of teaching, two meals and a bath for every child has doubled space requirements and has necessitated retraining 100,000 teachers.

"There was money to build nuclear power stations, but not for schools--it wasn't lack of funds but lack of options" that caused the problems inherited by Brizola, according to Ribeiro. Relations with the federal Education Ministry are good, while "complaints against the brizolao or our education policy here are politically inviable," a party official said.

The hotel in Ipanema will serve 500 children from the slums perched on the hillside above it, and some poorer children from the Ipanema neighborhood below also will attend. The project only awaits acceptance by hotel shareholders of Brizola's compensation offer.

Two other unused buildings in the suburbs also will be converted to centers bearing Brizola's name to look after 6,000 children a day. Rio's vice governor said the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank are eager to aid primary education in Brazil and "would love to do something for us." Rio is pressing them for $150 million, if the federal government can match the loan.

The money will be used to provide 500 community schools and thousands of small nursery schools in slum areas where preschool children run wild during the day. Deputies from Sweden's parliament have promised up to $500,000, which Ribeiro says will be used to equip the first brizolao.

"It was always a personality cult," Ribeiro said of Brizola's political style. Others point to his recent pact with leaders of the Social Democratic Party in Rio as proof that he is still a caudilho, or traditional political boss. The right-of-center Social Democrats are the main party in the federal government.

"The world senses that South America's great statesman is emerging, a man capable of making important social changes . . . . He is the leader of a movement that must grow because it fulfills the needs of the majority," Ribeiro said.

Brizola has mellowed considerably since the days when he resisted the military coup against his brother-in-law Goulart and attempted to raise a guerrilla army to stop the process. Although military leaders branded him an "incendiary" last year, Brizola has found new favor with them, and even urged the reelection as Brazil's president of Gen. Joao Figueiredo, 64, who is facing a fast-deteriorating political and economic situation and personal health problems.

Figueiredo's reelection is a worst case scenario to ensure the transition to full democracy, as it would bar Brizola from running as a candidate for direct election in 1985. Brasilia has held out against direct elections, which Brizola probably would win.

Brizola has begun to articulate among other opposition parties the option of an nonpartisan candidate to be elected directly to the presidency. Ribeiro said, "I accepted the post of Rio vice governor on three conditions: that Brizola wouldn't resign, die or become a presidential candidate."

For Ribeiro, Brazil is "the country the United States would have been if the South had won the Civil War. We're fighting Abraham Lincoln's battles two centuries on." Back in power and with memories of the fall of "the most brilliant government Brazil has ever had, which was overthrown by an international conspiracy," Ribeiro said, "They stole 20 years of my life."

Rio's government takes a cool view of progress being made by other key opposition states. Of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais state governors, Ribeiro said, "We have a road to travel with them, but we're different." He described the governor of Sao Paulo State, Franco Montoro, as "very backward politically, a Christian Democrat whose thinking predates Pope John XXIII."

But in Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, which has 600,000 jobless and was shaken by riots in April, Montoro's secretary for participation and decentralization, Franco Baruselli, said, "It's much easier to enchant the citizens of Rio than Sao Paulo."

Although aware that Montoro's cautious committee style compares unfavorably with Brizola's dexterity, Baruselli called the government fundamentally more democratic than Rio's. "It's not difficult to recreate old-style populism in this country--we, too, could have this image, but it would have zero result," he said.