With 23 spotlights trained on his oft-caricatured face, Robert H. Bork sat alone and expressionless at the long witness table as his chief opponent branded him "an activist of the right" and "hostile to the rule of law." He cracked only the most modest of smiles when an ardent supporter lauded him as "an eminent scholar with a brilliant mind."

This impassive figure clad in a dark suit hardly appeared a person whose nomination to the Supreme Court could touch off a colossal clash between forces trying to shape American society. Nor did he seem a man whose writings had roared like a lion in the conservative legal world for almost 25 years.

In his opening day of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Robert H. Bork seen yesterday by millions of American television viewers was toned down even in appearance. His gray hair, a longtime trademark often likened to a Brillo pad, and his wispy, white beard had been trimmed, as had his imposing girth. An unreconstructed chain-smoker for years, he took not a puff as he sat through seven hours of often-grueling questioning and pointed speechmaking by committee members.

Even the biting sense of humor -- the one that moved him to characterize a colleague's thinking as a cross between "Edmund Burke and 'Fiddler on the Roof' " -- was in check. Only once did Bork let loose a scornful quip -- saying a certain brand of extremist judges "really ought to be accompanied by a guardian rather than sitting on a bench."

But if the anticipated "championship fight" between Bork and his critics failed to produce many fireworks, the opening day of hearings nonetheless appeared to stir the passions of Americans outside the hearing room. A survey of committee members' offices produced reports of a storm of telephone calls from constituents -- particularly to offices of members who have said they are undecided on how to vote.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) installed two extra telephone lines and received 2,000 calls in his Washington office and 1,000 in his Pennsylvania offices in the first four hours of hearings -- almost evenly divided for and against Bork's confirmation, according to a senior Specter aide.

So many calls to Specter's Washington office were on the subject of Bork that receptionists began answering the phone: "Sen. Arlen Specter's office. Are you calling about the Bork nomination? Are you for or against?"

The hearings opened with Bork flanked by luminaries including former president Gerald R. Ford and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), recruited by the White House to introduce him. But those men exited after their prepared speeches, and Bork was left alone at the long, green-felt-covered witness table -- a stark reminder that when all is said and done, it is Bork's performance alone that likely will most sway the outcome of his nomination.

For all the feeling in the heartland, the hearings drew only a modest turnout of citizens attempting to get seats in the marbled Senate Caucus Room. By 8 a.m., fewer than 25 men and women had lined up outside the Senate Russell Office Building, although those desiring seats were advised to be there by 6 a.m.

At least half of those interviewed shortly before 10 a.m., when the line had grown to about 100, said they had come as tourists who happened to be in Washington and wanted to see their government at work. "In all honesty, it's the Constitution's birthday, and this is a great way to watch it in action," said Mark Hanson, a Miami lawyer who identified himself as a Bork opponent.

Yet while Bork's demeanor was conciliatory, many of his words were not. He presented himself as an unyielding exponent of what he calls "judicial restraint," overriding majority will to guarantee individual rights only in cases covered clearly by the Constitution or legislation.

"If a judge abandons intention {of the Constitution's framers} as his guide, there is no law available to him and he begins to legislate a social agenda for the American people," Bork said in an opening statement. "He or she then diminishes liberty, rather than enhancing it."

In response to pummeling questions by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), his most impassioned opponent on the committee, Bork acknowledged that this approach had led him to oppose such landmark Supreme Court opinions as one-man, one-vote, a right to privacy, abolition of a state's poll tax and others. And he said he still faults the reasoning -- if not the results -- of those opinions.

"It doesn't come out of anything in the Constitution," Bork said of the one-man, one-vote ruling. "And if the people of the country want it, they can adopt {it as a law, rather than relying on the high court} anytime they want to."

"With all your ability, I just wish you'd devoted even a little bit of your talent to advancing equal rights rather than criticizing so many decisions protecting rights and liberties," Kennedy said as he ended his questions.

Bork, known for his combative teaching style as a professor at Yale Law School for more than a decade, absorbed critical questions from committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) like a scholar in a legalistic discussion.

As Biden sought to nail Bork for opposing privacy rights, the former professor said he had nothing against privacy; what he criticized, he said, was the reasoning used by the Supreme Court to enshrine it as a right.

When Kennedy posed the hypothetical case of a state legislature voting for compulsory abortion or sterilization -- something he described as a gross violation of individual rights -- Bork responded: "It is not up to Judge Bork to look behind {overrule} that unless he has got law to apply."