Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) declined to commit himself yesterday on the Supreme Court nomination of Sandra D. O'Connor after a 40-minute meeting between the two.

Helms, the conservative senator with the greatest potential for disrupting a smooth confirmation process for O'Connor, would only say afterward that he intended to "follow this lady's career very closely." But would he help her career by supporting her confirmation? he was asked.

"Well, why should I do otherwise," he said with a grin. "She's a very fine lady."

He then shut his office door on a crowd of reporters, refusing to decode his comment.

The encounter with Helms continued a week of what appeared to be gamesmanship between Helms and the White House over the O'Connor nomination. The meeting was scheduled by the White House for 6:30 p.m. yesterday, the latest of O'Connor's sessions with members of Congress so far.

A White House spokesman denied this was done to avoid giving Helms exposure on the television network's nightly news programs.

Five minutes before O'Connor was scheduled to arrive, however, Helms disappeared from his office, saying he had to attend a Senate roll call. "What time did she say she was coming?" he asked an aide as he scurried down the hall.

Helms returned 10 minutes later for the session with O'Connor, who was waiting patiently in his office with her escorts from the White House and Justice Department.

The two posed briefly for pictures before they went inside. Will he support her nomination? a reporter asked Helms as the cameras clicked.

"I've known her for less than 10 seconds," he said. "I'm certain my respect will grow."

"How did the meeting go and what do you think of the judge? "he was asked as the two emerged 40 minutes later. "We'll have many more meetings," he said. "And I look forward to following this lady's career with great interest."

In fact, O'Connor's reception on Capitol Hill in three days of politicking has been so favorable that Senate leaders say she faces no serious problem with confirmation, with or without Helms' support.

Her supports range from her conservative Republican home-state senator, Barry Goldwater, to liberals like Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio,), a Judiciary Committee member.

"She will be a welcome addition to the Supreme Court," Metzenbaum said after his meeting with O'connor yesterday. "Her appointment will provide new approaches and new thrusts" to the court. "At this point, I intend to vote for her," Metzenbaum said.

However, he and others conceded during the past three days that the courtesy calls taught them very little about her views on major issues.

Asked if he had any way of telling what kind of justice O'Connor would be, Metzenbaum said: "Not really."

Today, O'Connor is to meet with another expected supporter: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

"If Goldwater supports you and Kennedy supports you," Goldwater was heard to say to O'Connor the other day, "You can't lose."