Within the thick, marble walls of the Senate Caucus Room, it was as if nothing had happened. There, Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) was the committee chairman, not the embattled presidential hopeful. The subject at hand was Robert H. Bork, and the talk was only of principles and precedents -- not a whisper about plagiarism.

A few political reporters drifted in, expecting to observe Biden under pressure. But they soon exited, finding nothing more dramatic than business as usual -- a crowded hearing room with Biden in the chairman's seat, pressing Supreme Court nominee Bork for his interpretation of the First and Fifth Amendments.

From the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Strom Thurmond (S.C.), to its ranking Democrat, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), members of this close-knit panel said they want Biden to carry on. Those interviewed praised his leadership of the hearings.

"I told him he should stay on," said Thurmond, recalling his response when Biden privately told the committee Wednesday of the plagiarism charges. "I expressed my support. And nobody expressed their opinion to the contrary. I took that to be pretty solid support.

"We have found him to be fair and just. And we all think he's conducting the hearings fine," Thurmond continued.

Whether the full Senate -- or American voters -- will agree remained unclear in the immediate aftermath of Biden's acknowledgment of having plagiarized part of a paper in law school. Some opponents of Bork's nomination have expressed concern that Biden's problems could shift the focus of the hearings from Bork's fitness to the chairman's.

But the Judiciary Committee, whose members have served more years together than those on most other Senate panels, clearly decided yesterday to stand with its chairman in his hour of crisis.

Some of the strongest words of support came from Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) during yesterday's afternoon session. Praising Biden as "fair," "candid" and "very courteous," Simpson said: "Hang on tight. You have . . . at least had the guts to throw yourself in the public arena to run for the presidency. And that's better than a lot of faint-hearted detractors will ever do in this world. And they will be the ones who will be trying to sully you and pull down. And so more power to you as you grapple with that one."

Other committee members, in interviews, shared those sentiments. "It seems to me he's leaning over backwards to ensure Judge Bork a fair hearing," said Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.). "I don't think this situation impairs the committee's work at all."

"Sen. Biden is . . . straight as an arrow," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.). "His word is good. I hope he takes no action to recuse himself."

Some tourists in the hearing room, accustomed to a fiery, oratorical Biden, thought they detected a change in his demeanor. "Poor Biden. He seemed like he'd had the starch knocked out of him," said a woman from Davis, Calif.

But what they observed apparently was nothing more than Biden's deliberately toned-down and polite approach, evident all week -- an apparent effort by the presidential candidate to dispel his reputation for stridency.

"The only thing that will undermine my ability to run the Bork hearings is if it turns out I don't know what I'm talking about," Biden said at his news conference.

He urged reporters to question his committee colleagues about the impact of the controversy on his effectiveness as chairman.

"I think that the fact that he went public and told his side of the story will lead the American people to accept him," said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). "Look at {former White House aide} Oliver North. They accepted a lot from him. The way I see it, Joe took his rap."

Asked whether the controversy puts the hearings under a cloud, as some have suggested, Metzenbaum said, "I think once you go public you're not under a cloud."

"I certainly accept his explanation," said Kennedy, Bork's most vehement opponent on the panel. "Now let's focus on the hearings. That's what's important. I think we're all working on the substance of the hearings."

"I think he {Biden} is getting a bad rap," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who has staked out the ground opposite Kennedy, emerging as Bork's most impassioned advocate in the hearings. "A lot of people give speeches that aren't totally original. His speeches are much like everyone else's. They're written by very creative staff people."

Hatch and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said they separately took Biden aside after his news conference yesterday to express support. "The rest of us have told him it's not an issue," Leahy said. "We've said that what you should be judged on is the kind of job you do here," chairing the hearings.

"They have been very supportive," Biden said of his colleagues on the


One of the strongest votes of confidence came from one of Biden's presidential rivals, committee member Paul Simon (D-Ill.).

"There's a basic feeling that Joe is a person of integrity," Simon said. "Sure he made a mistake when he was a student. We've all made mistakes. For those of us on the committee, it's almost as if it didn't happen."