The name of Lewis F. Powell Jr. is not associated with the rough-and-tumble world of presidential politics. But when Powell announced his retirement from the Supreme Court last month, he transformed the early dynamics of the 1988 presidential campaign and thrust the candidacy of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) into the national spotlight.

While the other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination jockey for an advantage that will set them apart from the pack, Biden has been handed the vehicle to do just that. But the upcoming Senate battle over confirmation of President Reagan's nominee to succeed Powell, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Robert H. Bork, presents Biden with as many dangers as opportunities.

"Like most major political developments in the midst of a campaign, it's an opportunity and a potential problem," said Greg Schneiders, a political consultant who is advising one of Biden's rivals, former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. "If he handles it well, it's a great opportunity."

For Biden, the potential advantages as the Democratic point man in an assault on the Bork nomination were evident last week. The Iran-contra hearings dominated the news on Capitol Hill, but Biden was a secondary center of attention.

That exposure will increase with the opening of Bork's confirmation hearings on Sept. 15 and later when the fight moves to the Senate floor, where Biden is likely to be pitted against another presidential aspirant, Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).

"You have to look at it as an opportunity," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. "It gives him a chance to deal with an issue that presidents deal with -- who you would appoint to the Supreme Court."

The confirmation process, which could last well into November or beyond, will cut deeply into the time Biden can spend campaigning in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But, Hickman noted, while the other candidates are grinding through ritual appearances in town halls and living rooms in those two states, Biden will have a national stage on which to do "a little play acting in a presidential role."

Biden has already made two critical decisions about his role in the confirmation process -- to lead the fight against Bork and to announce that opposition weeks before the hearings.

Two campaign aides, who asked not to be identified, insisted that Biden's political advisers are playing no role in the confirmation fight and argued that "a good case" could be made for the political benefits of supporting confirmation and defending the president's right to name qualified justices of any political persuasion.

But with a wide array of liberal organizations mobilizing for an all-out fight against Bork's confirmation, such a course would risk the anger of the political activists who play a key role in the Democratic nominating process. Biden's Democratic rivals have clearly concluded the same thing. All but Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who is counting heavily on the support of party moderates -- especially in the South -- were quick to denounce the nomination.

Biden has begun to focus the debate on the conservative social policy agenda of the Reagan administration, a more inviting target for the Democrats than the qualifications of Bork. Depicting Bork as "the vehicle" chosen by Reagan and Attorney General Edwin Meese III to impose their views on the court and the country, Biden repeatedly referred last week to Bork's potential role in advancing "the Reagan-Meese agenda" on civil rights and civil liberties.

"What's at stake here, potentially, is the direction of the country for the next decade or more," he said on a C-SPAN television call-in show.

When Bork was nominated July 1, Biden said, "I will not take a formal position on the Bork nomination before {the} hearings begin." But within days of that announcement, he pledged to a group of liberal activists that he will oppose the nomination and publicly announced "the overwhelming prospect" that he will vote against Bork. He is expected to set out his formal position in a series of Senate speeches during the next two weeks.

All of that has raised the stakes for Biden, who has pledged to conduct "full, fair and thorough hearings" and not to attempt to delay the process in the committee. His actions and words during the hearings will be scrutinized for any signs of deviation from that promise.

"I don't think he had any choice politically," William Carrick, campaign manager for presidential hopeful Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), said of Biden's announced opposition. "Otherwise he would have been eaten alive by the coalition that is getting behind the anti-Bork campaign."

Hickman said the key for Biden "is whether he is perceived as opposing Bork because of strongly held views on which he has a record or if he appears to be conducting the hearings for political benefit."

Biden's rivals are betting that he will not withstand the scrutiny. "He'll talk too much, he'll say too much and he'll get carried away," said an adviser with another campaign organization.

Biden goes into the confirmation battle with a reputation for glibness and was quickly reminded that whatever he says can and will be used against him. Last year, after the Senate confirmed conservative Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, Biden told The Philadelphia Inquirer that if Reagan nominated Bork and he, like Scalia, was found personally and professionally qualified for the appointment, "I'd have to vote for him."

The remark has now thrown Biden on the defensive. He said he would not object to Bork as a replacement for Scalia or one of the other conservative justices, but that Powell was the key "swing vote" in a number of Supreme Court decisions, putting Bork's nomination in a different category.

"If Mr. Bork were about to replace {Chief Justice William H.} Rehnquist or if Mr. Bork were about to replace Scalia, this would be a whole different ball game," Biden said on C-SPAN. But when a questioner challenged the use of the court's ideological "balance" in judging a nominee, he added:

"The question is not balance . . . . That's not the case I'm making. The case I'm making is that when a president makes a judgment to effectuate an agenda, a political agenda, he could not effectuate through the other mechanisms of government, executive or legislative, through the court, then the Senate has an obligation and a requirement and an opportunity to respond to that."

Hickman said Biden "has his destiny in his hands" as he assumes a leading role in a political battle that both sides are casting in apocalyptic terms.

And Biden said he understands how he and his presidential campaign will be judged.

"I think the basis of the judgment is going to be how fairly and well I comport myself," he said. "When this is over, people are going to have made judgments: Was Biden fair? Was Biden informed? Did Biden know what he was doing?"