MOSCOW -- To a visiting political reporter from America, today's opening of the much-ballyhooed "showdown" at the 28th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party was more like the arcane maneuverings of a Democratic Party rules commission than a confrontation between the Good Guys and Bad Guys of the Kremlin.

The main difference was that the top man -- President Mikhail Gorbachev -- was there himself to make the rulings and keep the game moving forward. In that respect, it was as if President Bush had to preside personally over the week of platform deliberations at the next Republican convention, rather than send in his instructions from White House seclusion.

It was only 70 minutes into the congress when Gorbachev was forced for the first time to admonish the 4,600 comrade delegates to "Please calm down."

A woman in red -- one of the few women in an assemblage that provided far more ethnic diversity than gender equality -- had asked that proposals of the radical-reform Democratic Platform movement and other such groups be scheduled for debate. The response from the rows of apparatchiks was a round of boos and catcalls.

"She has a right," Gorbachev said, and then swiftly signaled for an electronic rollcall, which swept her proposal and other agenda modifications into the ash heap of history, as Karl Marx would say.

Gorbachev managed these machinations with considerable good humor. When he asked the delegates to test their skills in working the "black box" electronic voting system by voting "yes" if present, he misread the result as 4,489, was whistled down and quickly said, "Excuse me -- that is 4,610. It is good that the chairman is under the supervision of the delegates."

The delegates missed very little. They stayed in their seats, scribbled notes and -- unlike American convention delegates -- did not suffer the indignity of being trampled by roaming television crews. Not once did Gorbachev have to cry, "Clear the aisles."

He did, however, have to endure all sorts of political posturing. A big, burly, bearded fellow from Siberia stood up in the balcony, said the gathering was too middle-class and suggested that 250 "workers and peasants" be invited as non-voting delegates. Another delegate said there should be a worker on the executive board.

"Do you have anyone specific to propose?" Gorbachev asked.

"Well," said the delegate, "I would propose myself."

A delegate from Soviet Estonia, where the Communist Party has been split by the independence issue, asked permission to give up his seat on the executive board to a factional foe, in the interests of unity, and was promptly denounced by a fellow Estonian.

A Democratic Platform delegate from Leningrad, deciding to test the convention's tolerance for his kind of heresy, asked to have a representative of the group added to the secretariat and won by 1,000 votes.

A few minutes later, he decided to push his luck by seeking to include on the agenda a debate on "the results of 73 years of no alternative to the Communist Party" and got his head handed to him.

At many points, the issues seemed achingly familiar to anyone who has endured the Talmudic controversies of successive Democratic Party rules commissions back in the United States.

Proposed rules here would allow any group of 250 delegates to offer a platform statement. Several delegates said the threshold should be lowered to 100. The agrarian lobby demanded a special session on rural problems. A Young Communist delegate wanted assurance that names of all candidates for leadership would be announced at least a day before they are to be elected. The delegates voted to require a report from each member of the ruling Politburo and quarreled with Gorbachev over whether one or two days of the scheduled 10-day congress should be spent in smaller working groups.

Away from the Kremlin, the drama of all this was not evident to Muscovites or visitors from the distant corners of the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Stepanovich Zhorkin, 71, a gold-toothed veteran of World War II, said his only hope was for an end to the feuding among party leaders. "Too many want to drive a wedge between our leaders instead of supporting them," he said.

Irina, 36, a physician who declined to give her last name, said, "I expect nothing from this meeting. We've been waiting five years already {since Gorbachev took power}, and only a flicker of hope remains. If I don't believe in Gorbachev, there is no one else to believe in."

Another woman, Nina, an engineer with the Soviet Union's leading theater construction firm, said that "shortages of all kinds have made life almost unbearable." As she spoke, a long line of people inched forward toward a store selling cigarettes. "It is taking so long for them {the leaders} to find the guilty ones that our economy is near complete collapse."

"I can't tell if Gorbachev's ideas are right or wrong," she continued. "All I know is that all the decisions he's talked about have not resulted in any concrete, practical things. I've ceased to believe in political leaders. I'll have to believe in supernatural forces now. Nothing else will save us."