The girl disappeared beneath the swift waters of the James River, saved only by quick action of two passing canoeists -- Gerald L. Baliles, then attorney general of Virginia, and his 12-year-old son, Jonathan.

A public relations dream for some politicians, the 1982 incident went undisclosed by Baliles, now the Democratic candidate for governor.

"How did you get that?" Baliles said, obviously surprised after a reporter learned of the incident.

For Baliles, 45, the episode illustrates the clearly defined line he has drawn, sometimes to his seeming disadvantage, between his private life and public role as an intensely determined, but in many ways colorless politician who faces Republican Wyatt B. Durrette in next Tuesday's election.

It is a dichotomy that Baliles himself seems to realize. "I may be characterized as low-key and laid back when I'm sitting around a table, but I can turn it on when I need to -- and I will," he said.

The way Baliles turned it on in this campaign, through sharp attacks on his opponent, has surprised many and produced charges from Republicans that he is mean and cold.

But his aggressiveness -- in a campaign that has emphasized his 18 years of government experience and ties to Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb -- has succeeded in placing the GOP on the defensive for much of the campaign. When Baliles charged Durrette was unqualified, the Republican was incredulous. "I would never say my opponent is unqualified," he shot back.

Some of his supporters acknowledge that Baliles' image may not be as compassionate as they would like. "There's a question there of warmth," said Baliles campaign manager Darrel Martin, noting that some of the Democratic TV ads are been designed to display a friendlier, wittier Baliles that many of his staffers say he privately displays.

"Voters look on vulnerability as a virtue . . . , " said Martin. "This is something we have to compensate for with Jerry."

"He has a nice sense of humor with a little edge to it," said Washington lawyer John Shenefield, who was active with Baliles in Richmond politics during the mid 1970s. "He has to keep it in. It looks wrong in some contexts, but among friends provided the spark of the evening."

"Jerry's humor is contextual," explained David Hathcock, press secretary for Baliles before he resigned as attorney general during the summer to campaign. "You have to be there."

A glimpse of Baliles' dry wit comes when he is asked to characterize his personality. There is a pause.

"I don't think I'm the best for that," he said finally, displaying the caution for which he is widely known. (Boldly Cautious, Richmond reporters dubbed him during a political skit last spring.)

On the campaign trail as he was as attorney general and legislator, Baliles is not one to jest. He rarely offers anything more than a mild quip when he delivers his message -- that he can carry on the educational and industrial development programs of the Robb administration with same frugality that has marked Virginia government for decades.

His general appearance -- conservative, well-tailored suits, graying hair and heavy eyelids framed by silver-rimmed glasses -- reinforces his serious demeanor.

It is a seriousness that friends trace to his childhood in southern Virginia's Patrick County, where he and one of his two brothers were reared by his grandparents after his parents separated. Another brother, now a Baptist missionary in Africa, was reared by other relatives in the rural county.

"It's a part of my private life that I don't talk about very often, something that happened 40 years ago," Baliles said in an interview. "I was fortunate to have grandparents who provided means of love, shelter and clothing which I might not have had. I don't view it in traumatic terms."

Still, friends say Baliles is clearly uncomfortable at the memories of being left with his grandparents, a stern Baptist couple. His father traveled frequently and saw the boys intermittently. The mother moved away.

"She basically left three little boys and basically said she didn't want anything to do with them," said Jeannie Baliles, the candidate's wife, in a separate interview. Baliles' mother, now elderly and ill, lives in the Hampton Roads area, where a friend keeps in contact with her for Baliles. His grandparents have died.

Baliles dismisses as "amateur psychology" suggestions by friends that his famed determination and desire to prove himself was formed by those early years. " . . . I think I had an innate curiosity about life long before that . . . . It's something deeper than just childhood beginnings," he said.

Still, said Ed Harrell, a close friend, "I suspect that background lent a lot to his being that way."

"He's a very loving and caring father," said Harrell. "Jonathan is fairly sure that Jerry hung the moon." Harrell said the Baliles family, including 16-year-old daughter Laura, "is pretty high-powered. The amazing thing is the four of them have respect for each other."

Martin, the campaign manager, said he can see the impact of Baliles' early years. "Some of the innate caution, some of his reflective mood, a sort of turning to a linear perspective, no question his turning to reading is a result" of his childhood years, Martin said.

Baliles devoured books as a child, often persuading others to check out books for him when he reached his own limit of 15 books. The books, The National Geographic and national newspapers he read offered a "larger world than what I saw [and] allowed me to reach out beyond the confines of that county," he said.

"He was a very studious type person," said brother Larry, 44, chief deputy sheriff of Patrick County for the last two decades. "I was more for physical working. Every time he had a chance, he had a book open. It's still pretty much the same way."

A week before the election, Baliles still finds time to read "The Soong Dynasty," a detailed, 532-page account of various Chinese leaders and "The Image of Eternity: Roots of Time in the Physical World," a book dealing with how philosophers explain the concept of time. And, said Baliles, whose other avocation is fishing, he has been searching for Herman Wouk's historical novel "Inside Outside."

Not the bookshelf of the average Democrat in Virginia, he might concede, but then little in Baliles' political career in a party that Robb has helped rebuild has been routine.

When he was in the legislature, representing Richmond and some of the adjacent suburbs, Baliles undertook a detailed study of the state's election laws, noting that Virginia voters would be confronted by an election every year until the year 2000, except two years.

Too many elections? Typically cautious, Baliles stopped short of calling for overhauling the state's election schedule. He just wanted to present the facts, he said, and let the legislature decide if it wished to deal with the issue. It hasn't, although he has said the high cost of this fall's elections (more than $7 million) is an issue he wants the General Assembly to study.

That same pronounced sense of caution perhaps has been one of his best assets and greatest liabilities on the campaign trail. It has made it difficult for Republicans to label him and it has made difficult for reporters to obtain crisp quotes on details on some of his programs, such as highways. He says he wants to spend more money on roads, but, like Durrette, won't say whether that means higher gasoline taxes, more toll roads, or something else.

Baliles is personally as cautious. The family bought a color TV only three years ago, just in time to watch the last episode of M*A*SH*, the Army comedy that is their favorite program, said his wife.

Baliles and his wife, the former Jeannie Patterson of Baltimore, whom he met at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, stressed reading to their two children, Laura, 16, and Jonathan, now 14, and they saw no need for a color TV until they became attracted to M*A*S*H and public TV's "Brideshead Revisited."

They say they differ sharply with the Durrettes, who have seven children, over the role of children in politics. "One difference: We don't believe in parading our children out in public, something like objects of art," said Jeannie Baliles.

Even when relaxed at home there are hints of Baliles' reserve. After his final televised debate of this campaign, he met a reporter at his home in suburban Richmond and talked for 90 minutes, sipping on a can of Budweiser in a darkened sun room. It was the end of a day begun in a different city 15 hours earlier. Baliles' shoes were off, his suit jacket removed, but his tie remained knotted.

His election four years ago over Durrette by a narrow 26,000 votes, was a surprise. Baliles was so low-key that many thought he had little chance, but he won, thanks partly his own determination and to Robb's coattails in an election that Republicans say was a deviation from their party's increasing control over the state government.

Baliles earlier this year was seen as the underdog to Democratic Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis for the Democratic Party nomination. "I always thought Jerry would win. He just refuses to lose," said Del. Thomas V. Forehand of Chesapeake, a family friend. Baliles was the upset victor in his first race for the House of Delegates in 1975, ousting a well-known and bombastic member of the legislature.

Baliles has studiously tailored this year's campaign after Robb's success, from using the same Washington consultant, David Doak, to keeping a polite distance from such traditional Democratic groups as labor and blacks to avoid charges from Republicans about "special interests."

The similarities in campaign style are numerous, including an eye for detail that produces thick, almost academic position papers on dozens of subjects.

Robb and Baliles, who will begin a two-day campaign swing Tuesday, socialize and play tennis together. They have a "similarity that is is somewhat stylistic and philosophical," said Martin.

"Robb puts strong emphasis on decorum engendered by his military background" in the Marine Corps, Martin said. "Jerry puts strong emphasis on reflectiveness, discipline, more from a personal and legal background. In some ways, they have reached the same point from different directions."

Baliles attended Fishburne Military School, a private military prep school near Waynesboro where he excelled in academics, was seen as a class leader and worked part time to help pay his way. He later attended Wesleyan, picked from a number of schools because he thought he would offer a challenging academic environment. He returned to Fishburne and worked in the school library for a year earning money for law school.

His wife taught high school in the Charlottesville area while he attended the University of Virginia Law School. Law degree in hand and his dreams of being a pilot in the Air Force abandoned, he took what was to be an eight-year job as an assistant attorney general before his election to the legislature in 1975. Baliles did not serve in the military.

David Hathcock, Baliles' former press secretary, said Baliles "has three circles of friends -- political, governmental and personal" -- that "overlap a little." He said Baliles ran the 120-lawyer attorney general's office with an interest in his employes' personal and professional lives, but always remaining slightly detached socially.

Baliles consolidated all the state's lawyers into one staff and initiated a Medicaid fraud and collections staff that collected more in bad state debts than the cost of the office. His management style tended toward seeking written summaries of issues, to be distilled later in small meetings, Hathcock said.

One of the routine but far-reaching duties of the attorney general is to give hundreds of written opinions -- legal advice -- to state agencies and local governments. While prepared by assistant attorneys general, Baliles made a point of reading each one and sometimes researched some himself, Hathcock said. "They were his opinions," he said.

"I never thought he would be governor," said Jeannie Baliles, recalling the early years of their marriage. "Much of what has happened to him has been evolutionary. If he had ever fallen on his face, that would have been the end of his career . . . . I really think the governor's seat is the end of Jerry's political ambitions."