"My grandfather's home was the only private residence in Patrick County where the bookmobile stopped." That's one thing that shines out from Gerald Baliles' memories of his boyhood in the southernmost part of the state, where the Blue Ridge rises up from the rolling lands of Southside Virginia. As a boy of 4 and 5 he had lived in Washington during World War II, but most of his childhood was spent on his grandparents' farm. "My grandparents were very strict disciplinarians, and made sure that we acquired the work ethic," he says.

He saw reading as "an escape." His grandfather had only a third-grade education, but he subscribed to The Post, though he was a conservative Democrat and it was a liberal paper published 250 miles away. So even then Gerald Baliles felt "there was a world out there I was going to." As a teen-ager he wanted to go to the Air Force Academy. His father, who had a small trucking firm, lived sometimes on the grandparents' farm, and he promised Gerald some financial support for his schooling; he decided to use it in his high school years to attend Fishburne, a military school in Waynesboro. Soon he found himself fascinated with history and government, with Hannibal crossing the Alps and Caesar's wars, and with debate and public speaking. He was a good student and a good athlete; he was second in his class and ran the mile, a race requiring pacing and stamina, in 4:48.

"Pretty much steering myself," he decided not to head for the Air Force Academy, which would have been free, and instead "rolled the dice" and, looking for "a change in perspective," went to Wesleyan, the elite private college in Connecticut. "I went with $200 in my pocket, got a scholarship, and worked my way through," he says. "There was never a moment to fool around. You find the time; the busier you get, the better you become." He returned to Virginia and, newly married to a graduate student in history, went to law school at UVa.

From there, maybe even from his days representing Fishburne at national debate contests, his career seems to have led him straight to where he is today. After law school he went into the state attorney general's office in Richmond, working for two Democrats -- Richard Button and Andrew Miller -- of quite different political stripes. He remembers with relish his argument, in a case about the ownership of offshore lands, that the common law from the 12th and 13th centuries and international law at the time of the London Co. Charter of 1606-07 gave ownership to the king and the colony and therefore today to the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Supreme Court disagreed.

Baliles enjoys such meanderings through history, but he seems to have confined them mostly to his extensive leisure reading rather than to his professional life. Politically, he has spotted opportunities others did not see, set his own goals, and proceeded methodically to achieve them. In the attorney general's office he was obviously not oblivious to politics, and attended his share of political barbecues. But his serious interest in politics, he says, started precisely 10 years ago. The opening he spotted was in a floater seat covering all of Richmond and suburban Henrico County; it was the largest house district in the state. The incumbent concentrated on busing, long a burning issue in Richmond and suburbs; of his opponent, he says: "my perception is that he had passed his time."

Baliles won that election and won again in 1977 and 1979. He is proud that he was voted the fourth most effective legislator after one term; "I knew the legislative process and where to push the buttons." And he spotted another opening: the race for attorney general in 1981. The consensus was that the Republican, Wyatt Durrette, would win it, and that legislator Shad Solomon had the Democratic nomination sewed up. Wrong on both counts, thought Baliles, and beat them both. He's proud of his record as attorney general. "I've kept a scorecard of promises," he says, with characteristic precision, "and kept score as I accomplished them."

Just as in 1975 and 1981, so in 1985 Baliles began his race for a new office as a little-known underdog and then went on -- so far at least -- to beat the odds. Lt. Gov. Dick Davis was the favorite for the Democratic nomination, but Baliles figured out how to corner convention votes in the rural areas (by suggesting Davis was too liberal to be elected) and to win more than anyone expected in the Northern Virginia suburbs (partly by stressing his pro-choice position on abortion). Now he's the nominee of the party that has lost three of the last four gubernatorial elections in Virginia, and seems confident he'll win again.