WASHINGTON (AP) _ Much of the debate over the nomination of Joycelyn Elders to be surgeon general has degenerated into name-calling, with opponents calling her a ''condom queen'' and supporters retorting that her critics are zealots and bigots.

Elders herself has a reputation back in Arkansas for being combative and blunt, but she's keeping quiet as Friday's Senate confirmation hearing approaches.

She turned up at a news conference Tuesday to stand mute but applauding while people said nice things about her. After a few minutes of testimonials, she slipped out a door and left the building without answering any questions.

''My guess is there's going to be significant opposition,'' said Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., who already has declared he will vote against Elders.

Much of the dispute centers on things she said as director of the Arkansas Health Department. Last year she was quoted as telling an abortion-rights rally that anti-abortion groups should ''get over their love affair with the fetus.''

''That's a heck of a statement,'' Nickles said in an interview. ''I am offended by that.''

Avis LaVelle, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed that Elders had made the statement but said it was taken out of context. Elders meant that love affairs are short, and abortion opponents do not make long-term commitments to support children, LaVelle said.

''She certainly seems to be a radical in favor of abortion, in favor of birth control devices distribution for children, sex education for very young minors,'' Nickles said.

''They're enough to sink her nomination,'' he said.

But Nickles acknowledged he doesn't know how many senators will join him in opposing Elders. Congress is just returning from its July 4 recess, and no one has had time to take a count.

Democrats hold 56 seats in the Senate, but 60 votes are needed to head off any prospective filibuster against the nominee.

The Clinton administration, already burned on a couple of high-level nominations, is taking the challenge to Elders seriously.

''This will be a nomination that they have thrown down the marker on,'' LaVelle said. ''And this is a nomination that we will go to the mat on.

''President Clinton is rock solid on Joycelyn Elders.''

But there are groups that are rock solid against her, including TV evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and others. Ms. Schlafly has called Elders the ''condom queen,'' while Robertson said she is a ''radical leftist'' who is part of ''the radical fringe of Woodstock.''

Elders' supporters have counterattacked.

People for the American Way, a liberal lobbying group, labeled the opposition to Elders as a hatchet job by the ''religious right.''

''She is being subjected to character assassination of the most vicious and irresponsible kind,'' said Arthur Kropp, president of the group. ''Americans should not stand by and watch Dr. Elders become the latest victim of a Washington epidemic of nominee-bashing.''

''They're even reaching into the mudpot of racial epithet by calling her a 'condom queen,''' Kropp said.

Elders was doing her talking behind closed doors, meeting with senators on Tuesday.

''She'll be speaking for herself on Friday,'' spokesman Victor Zonana said to a reporter who sought public comment from the nominee.