RICHMOND, NOV. 28 -- The long feud between Virginia's two top Democrats exploded again today after U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb recommended Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's Republican opponent in last year's election to be the Bush administration's new drug control policy director.

What started this week as a political curiosity -- a letter from Robb to Bush on behalf of two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee J. Marshall Coleman -- by this afternoon had turned into a nasty war of words between advisers to Robb and Wilder.

Paul Goldman, chairman of the state Democratic Party and one of Wilder's closest advisers, issued a statement denouncing Robb's suggestion that Coleman, a man "who is not above spreading lies and innuendoes about his opponents," is fit to lead the national fight against drugs.

Robb, who usually has remained silent in the face of jabs from Wilder and his aides, did the opposite this time. His spokesman, Steve Johnson, contended that Wilder specializes in "grandstanding and bridge-burning," and suggested that Goldman may be suffering from "a case of Alzheimer's."

The Democratic hair pulling, a repetition of the open warfare between Robb and Wilder that broke out four years ago, prompted Coleman himself to enter the fray with a statement attacking Wilder's "shoot-from-the-hip approach and shameless self-promotion."

Wilder, by contrast, professed to be unconcerned about the feuding. Although "this is not the first time he has been attacked through statements, letters, et cetera" from Robb and other political rivals, Wilder's press secretary, Laura Dillard, said, "the governor is too busy addressing the problems of his office and this state to respond to such statements."

But there were few people in Virginia political circles today who believed that Wilder was truly above the fray. "Paul Goldman speaks for Doug Wilder," Johnson said.

The latest barbs focus new attention on an old rivalry between Robb and Wilder, both frequently mentioned as prospective candidates for national office. Although Robb campaigned for Wilder in his narrow victory over Coleman last year, the two have long viewed each other with poorly concealed suspicion.

In 1985, Goldman complained that then-Gov. Robb was taking too much credit for Wilder's election as lieutenant governor. Robb responded by releasing two letters accusing Wilder of being a political ingrate.

"It's war in front of a national audience," Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist Robert Holsworth said of the latest dispute.

Johnson said Robb's letter to Bush was a routine "senatorial courtesy," which Coleman requested. "Despite our differences," Robb wrote, "I have a high regard for Marshall's abilities and intellect, and I believe he would be an effective choice" to replace drug control policy director William Bennett, who is leaving to become chairman of the Republican National Committee. Virginia's other senator, Republican John W. Warner, also endorsed Coleman.

White House sources have said the job of drug control policy director is expected to go to Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, a Republican who lost a bid for reelection.

Goldman said the statement he released today wasn't designed to insult Robb. But the idea of Coleman trying to resurrect his political career, Goldman said, was so offensive that he had an "absolute obligation" to speak out.

Johnson noted that Goldman had shepherded a resolution through the Democratic National Committee calling on Democrats not to criticize one another. "He must have had a case of Alzheimer's between now and then," Johnson said.

Goldman responded, "I'm not speaking ill of anyone," adding that his DNC resolution concerned presidential nominees and was never intended to stifle a "vigorous debate."