WHEN he was still a small boy, L. Douglas Wilder's father warned his son:"When you spend your last dollar, you have lost your last friend." Mr. Wilder carried that advice right along with him when he became governor of Virginia in 1990. Faced with a $2.2 billion shortfall in the biennial budget, he was determined not to be a governor with empty pockets. Wilder scaled back spending, froze salaries, cut 300 jobs, and ended with a small budget surplus. During a recent interview at the state capitol, he observed proudly: "No one ever gave me, a Democrat, and especially a black Democrat, any chance of being the [leader] by which fiscal stability would be ensured" in Virginia. Now the governor, who declared himself a candidate for the White House last Friday, wants to bring that same kind of down-home common sense to the federal budget in Washington. Yet even with his reputation clearly established as a tight-fisted, low-tax governor, Wilder remains something of a mystery to many Virginians. Being black, many expected him to champion African-American causes. He does, but quietly. Being black, many expected him to be fiscally liberal to help the poor. But he takes pleasure in calling Republicans spendthrifts, while he husbands resources. Nor are all Virginians thrilled that their governor is seeking higher office. Although this state gave us some of our greatest presidents, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, 54 percent of Virginians say Wilder should not run, according to a new poll by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. The question many here ask is: What would Wilder use the great powers of the presidency to achieve, other than cutting the budget? Analyzing Wilder's career has become something of a cottage industry among Virginia political scientists, and a source of vitriol for some newspaper columnists and writers. For example, Richard Cohen, a liberal pundit for the Washington Post, ridicules Wilder's aspirations to the White House. Mr. Cohen rips into the governor as a person with a flawed character who will say or do almost anything to get ahead, as a "political scoundrel" who tells "bald-faced" lies, as an opportunist who is "tone deaf to the sound of civil liberties." Robert Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, observes: "One has to almost go back to the Nixon era [of Watergate] to see a column as venomous as the one Richard Cohen wrote." Dr. Holsworth, who has made a careful study of Wilder's 20-year political record, including his years as state senator and lieutenant governor, provides a more upbeat assessment of the man. Essentially, what Cohen calls opportunism, Holsworth calls pragmatism. "Wilder is, in a way, the ultimate pragmatist.... He is always thinking, 'What is the most effective means of accomplishing that? he explains. Holsworth suggests that Wilder's success in Virginia politics has come for two principal reasons: his pragmatism, and his personal and political independence. Wilder's pragmatism stems, in part, from another bit of family advice, this time from his mother. She told him: Never hang around with people who can do you no good, and themselves no good. Wilder explains: "They might be good people. They might be nice [and] quiet. But no motivation, no inspiration, and no hope to doing any better.... You ought to surround yourself with people who are not drags on you." Wilder took that advice to heart. In the state senate, he "built relationships with people that were useful politically, even if he might have objected to a person's previous stance on race issues, or a person's previous ideology. Wilder is very shrewd that way," Holsworth says. The professor says Wilder once told him that his election as governor was possible, even though he is black, because "there were very powerful people who recognized [and] knew Doug Wilder, and knew that he could be entrusted with the leadership of Virginia." The governor's independence and political courage have also been instrumental to his career, even though it partly explains his long stormy relationship with the state's most prominent and powerful Democrat, US Sen. Charles Robb, who once was governor. Analysts say Wilder showed his independence at an early age. Fresh out of law school, he had a choice. He could hang up a shingle and start out on his own, with all the risks that involves, or he could take a traditional route by accepting one of the offers he received from local black law firms in Richmond and Norfolk. Given those options, Wilder set up a one-man office over Ike's Shrimp House in a black section of Richmond. Wilder says that if he had accepted an offer with a firm, "I would not have been able to develop into the person I wanted to be because I could only speak when it was time to speak, and only move when it was time to move, and I wouldn't have been able to profit from my mistakes because I wouldn't have made any." Later, Wilder demonstrated dramatically that he was also willing to take chances to get ahead politically. In 1982, when then-Governor Robb's power was growing, Wilder butted heads with him in a high-stakes gamble. Robb and his political machine had hand-picked a conservative candidate to run as the Democratic nominee for the US Senate; but Wilder, then a state senator, objected. Unless Robb picked someone more moderate, Wilder threatened to run as an independent, pull away black voters, and doom the Dem ocratic candidate to defeat. Robb blinked. A more moderate candidate was chosen. And Wilder was on his way to becoming a Democratic Party power broker. The unanswered question about Wilder, however, is: What are his core beliefs? Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says that is not clear. He concludes that Wilder uses issues like "walking sticks" to help him get where he is going. Thus, Dr. Sabato says: "Does Wilder believe in fiscal responsibility? So long as that issue can help him politically, yes.... Does he believe in abortion rights? So long as that issue is helpful to him politically, yes. "Is there some strong, emotional, philosophical, ideological wellspring at Wilder's core from which those positions spring? No." Sabato, unlike columnist Cohen, does not find such pragmatism reprehensible. Rather, he suggests that black politicians are becoming more like white politicians - that is, more pragmatic, less ideological. Holsworth agrees, suggesting that Wilder sees politics as a "totally pragmatic exercise" with a goal of representing "all the people," not just a narrow ideology. Professor Holsworth says that Wilder's approach may find a favorable reception, not only among white voters, but also among some other black politicians who are tiring of the strident presidential campaigning of the most famous black politician, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.