Wilder, who in 1969 became the first black since Reconstruction to be elected to the Virginia state Senate, is rated among the most powerful figures in the 40-member upper body of the General Assembly.

Until he is sworn in Jan. 11 as the state's second highest executive, Wilder will remain chairman of the powerful privilege and elections committee, which oversees judicial appointments and the state's complex elections laws.

Known for his debating skills, quick humor -- and sometimes his temper -- Wilder announced for lieutenant governor in July 1984 and largely preempted the field with his early campaigning and because of other Democrats' reluctance to challenge him and risk alienating black support.

An ally of Gov. Charles S. Robb, Wilder has been a confidant of the governor on appointments and other administrative decisions.

He previously was best known statewide for his long effort to have Virginia establish a holiday to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1982 political threat to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent, a move that blocked nomination of a conservative Virginia Beach Democrat.

In his campaign for lieutenant governor, Wilder determined early that he could not raise huge sums of money. He set out on a 60-day, 3,000-mile auto trip around the state that garnered largely favorable attention, despite some party complaints it consumed time that could have been more profitably used.

In a campaign that stressed his appeal to moderates, Wilder also drew the support of powerful conservative and former segregationist legislators -- including House Speaker A.L. Philpott -- as well as some statewide law enforcement groups. The backing of such allies helped undercut his GOP opponent's criticisms.

Wilder, a divorced father of three, won the Bronze Star for bravery in the Korean War, then returned home hoping to become a lawyer. The University of Virginia law school, the state's most prestigious, barred blacks at the time, so Wilder graduated from Howard University law school in the District of Columbia.