RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, once lampooned for his studious caution and overshadowed by a phenomenally popular predecessor, has silenced the gibes and left his own mark on the state in a two-year triumph of substance over style.

Midway through a four-year term, Baliles has won rave reviews from fellow Democrats and grudging respect from Republicans for his hands-on approach to government and continuing courtship of the General Assembly where he once served. Virginia's corporate establishment has embraced his plans for economic development, while grateful officials from virtually every corner of the state sing his praises for infusions of transportation and education money.

"From blacktop to blackboards, he is a Renaissance leader," said Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert, one of many local officials who have followed Baliles' rapid progress since his inauguration in January 1986. The governor, Lambert said, "has been one of the best things to happen to Northern Virginia."

In interviews this month, legislative, corporate and civic leaders and political analysts give Baliles generally high marks for his administration's performance in its first 24 months. Some go further, saying Baliles has ensured himself a place in the history books by eclipsing the accomplishments of fellow Democrat and former governor Charles S. Robb, whom polls show to be Virginia's most popular politician.

Others, though, criticize Baliles for a personal style that deliberately borders on the colorless, and on substantive grounds for not embarking on more ambitious social agendas such as housing reform.

Baliles, characteristically, declines to engage in self-analysis. "What's important is not what people say, but whether we succeed," the governor said during a recent interview in his newly refurbished office at the Capitol. "I don't spend a lot of time in replays."

At age 47, Baliles clearly relishes the job that has added 20 pounds to his frame and a fresh crop of gray hairs to his head. In an office where, by law, he may not succeed himself, "the only regret is that I don't have enough time," Baliles said.

"He's changed since '85," said one Baliles staff member. "He's looser and happy because he hit his stride better than any of us would have guessed."

The confident governor of 1988 is somewhat different from the candidate of 1985, who at one point during the gubernatorial campaign was parodied in a skit by reporters as being "boldly cautious." The label stuck, but the titters about Baliles' detached, cerebral approach have died down.

Occasionally Baliles breaks his pattern, as he did when he lit a fire under Virginia Tech and the rest of the state's higher education system with a ringing graduation day speech on the importance of academics over athletics. As dramatic as it was, the speech that rocked the university to the point where its president resigned also underscored Baliles' more fundamental knack for picking bread-and-butter issues that rise above partisan politics.

Baliles "never will be star quality or celebrity status; he knows that," said Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who since their election has had his share of public squabbles with his former running mate. "The Baliles legacy," Wilder continued, "will be that you don't talk about what you do, you do it. He'll go down as perhaps one of the most effective governors we've had."

Baliles has worked hard at positioning himself for a place in the national spotlight, should it shine his way. He has taken an active role in the various associations of governors, chairing a report on the Tennessee Valley Authority for the southern governors, and winning election as vice chairman of the National Governors Association, which puts him in line to head the national group this year.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the former National Governors Association chairman who lobbied for Baliles' ascension to the group's top job, said he regarded his Virginia counterpart as "one of the brightest, most innovative and most determined of the governors" participating in the national organization.

"He's very, very shrewd," added Clinton, who said he consulted with Baliles several times when mulling a campaign for the presidency last year. "He has not been afraid to raise taxes for his highway program, which is a very difficult thing to do in a state as conservative as Virginia or Arkansas."

Baliles' legacy, in large part, is likely to be in transportation. The governor's 1986 request for a record tax increase to pay for a $1 billion-a-year road program was a most significant gamble by this politician accustomed to taking only calculated risks, and he won it.

When Baliles told state lawmakers, two days after his inauguration, that he would be calling them into special session later that year to launch the transportation initiative, "this feeling of 'Uh-oh, what's going on?' went around the room," recalled Del. Clifton A. Woodrum (D-Roanoke).

"If you didn't know it already, you learned at that moment that underneath his pin-striped exterior lurks the heart of a riverboat gambler," Woodrum said. Over the next few months, he added, the governor "got very busy. He worked that special {transportation} commission and talked to the legislature. He makes good bets; the thing was a howling success."

The key to the victory, apart from the enormous demand for relief from Virginia's many traffic problems, was Baliles' careful planning. His 30-member bipartisan Commission on Transportation in the 21st Century, which included several former governors, business leaders and other prominent citizens, created the framework allowing Baliles and the legislature to formally end the state's policy of pay-as-you-go financing for roads in favor of bonds and higher taxes.

In a sense, Baliles' transportation push reflected the governor's own competing interests -- a fascination with somewhat fuzzy national and global themes such as the so-called infrastructure crisis, the deterioration of highways and other public works projects; a determination bordering on obsession to leave his mark on Virginia, and a practical political reward to the urban jurisdictions, especially Northern Virginia, that helped elect him in the first place.

"Jerry Baliles knows that with big risks come big returns," said lawyer-lobbyist William G. Thomas of Alexandria, a confidant of Baliles and Robb.

Unlike Robb, a McLean resident who took care not to appear as though he favored the Washington suburbs over other localities, "Jerry has the opposite perspective," Thomas said. "By not being from Northern Virginia, he can reach out to the region in a more open and obvious way than Chuck would have been comfortable doing." Baliles is from Patrick County, just west of Martinsville in Virginia's Southside.

Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor, said that Baliles' transportation package also reflected Northern Virginia's emergence as the state's pivotal political community. The pipeline of voters and political money "isn't Main Street Richmond anymore, it's Tysons Corner and the Main Streets of Northern Virginia," Sabato said. "Transportation is at the top of the suburbanites' agenda, and Baliles has wooed and appealed to them."

House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Bassett), who, like Baliles, is from Southside, said that although the governor has "displayed a tremendous intelligence and understanding of state government, they're saying back home that he may have forgotten where he came from."

If Baliles dedicated his first year as governor to transportation, he made 1987 his year of trade, making three overseas trips to promote Virginia in global markets and simultaneously strengthening his ties to the state's conservative and largely Republican business community. Back home, the initiative produced few immediate results and a great many yawns, especially among legislators, but Baliles promoted the program relentlessly.

"I have to give the governor high marks for that program and his whole two years," said C. Coleman McGehee, president of the giant Richmond-based Sovran Bank, who has long been active in state Republican circles.

McGehee, who traveled with Baliles last year to the Far East, recalled a luncheon in which a Korean businessman was discussing what he looked for when locating a plant in a foreign country. "Before I could respond, the governor had turned around and whipped a brochure out of his briefcase explaining the advantages of locating at the Hampton Roads port," McGehee said.

"He's a good salesman in his own right," McGehee added. "Already, he has left his mark."

Last week, Baliles sought to solidify his gains with a record $22.5 billion state budget for the next two years, a spending blueprint that plows considerable sums of new money into human services and the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, while devoting a large share to education. He again held out Northern Virginia for special treatment, trying to offset the region's high cost of living through a series of special salary increases for teachers there.

Lawmakers from the populous Tidewater region and Richmond suburbs have pounced on the pay differential, and other legislators, notably state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), complained that the budget contained far too little money to address the state's criticial housing shortage.

Mitchell, one of the most articulate critics of the administration, said Baliles has been "much more of an activist" governor than Robb, and noticeably "more willing to do whatever is necessary to accomplish his objectives."

"Baliles has felt much less constrained by what he considers to be campaign rhetoric," said Mitchell, alluding to the governor's pledges in 1985 that he would not seek tax increases while governor. The special transportation session raised gasoline, sales and titling taxes and annual licensing fees to pay for the governor's program.

Still, he added, Baliles "did a superb job of focusing on transportation," an issue on which Mitchell supported the governor.

Others in and out of government express frustration with Baliles for waiting until the last possible moment to disclose his views on public issues, if he discloses them at all.

For example, his announcement shortly before November's referendum that he opposed a state-operated lottery was too little, too late, according to those who worked unsuccessfully for its defeat.

Another example: despite being wooed by most of the Democratic candidates for president, Baliles has given little indication that he will announce his choice before the March 8 Super Tuesday primary. Four years ago, Robb backed the unsuccessful campaign of Sen. John Glenn of Ohio.

In this public silence -- bred of caution and reinforced by the historical nature of the office -- Baliles rarely shows glimpses of the sharp sense of humor and keen political sense that his closest associates say they see in private.

Where Robb would relax through competitive sports such as touch football or tennis, Baliles "would rather go fishin' or read a good biography," Thomas said. "He's very sensitive -- to himself, where he is, and how he's going to be judged."

Comparisons between Robb and Baliles are natural. In many ways the former helped the latter by making it respectable for Virginia voters to support a Democrat again, albeit one of the moderate-to-conservative stripe. Robb, who slashed agency budgets to lead state government through the economic recession of the early 1980s, achieved a popular success that Baliles, who has been governor during at least two of state's boom years, may never match.

Nevertheless, in his own way Baliles has stepped well outside Robb's long shadow, many observers said.

"He's still shadowed by Robb in the public's mind, but not so among those who follow government closely," Sabato said. "The average Virginian thinks Robb hung the moon and that Baliles is a mere footnote on history. But if you look at their records, the reverse is true."

Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, Baliles' other running mate two years ago, said that while Robb's challenge was "getting elected, Jerry's feat was to lead a ticket {featuring herself and Wilder, who is black} that won broad-based acceptance of the Democratic Party."

Terry said the success of that history-making ticket "lifted Virginia's profile nationally, and helped Virginians see themselves differently. Jerry then flipped the state's image, from the Old Dominion to the New. He has great insight into where the state is going. He sees beyond the stereotypes, and has an appreciation for change."