WASHINGTON — Christine Blasey Ford's voice was soft and sometimes pinched, and it broke at times. But it echoed across the country.

Seared in her memory, Ford said, was the night decades ago that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were in high school — covering her mouth to prevent her screaming as a friend watched and laughed.

"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter, between the two," recalled Ford, a research psychologist. "I was underneath one of them while the two laughed."

Hours later, Kavanaugh was just as firm in denying it ever happened, his voice booming, defiant and angry.

"This confirmation process has become a national disgrace," he said, as he delivered, sometimes near tears, an emotional 45-minute opening statement. "You have replaced advise and consent with search and destroy."

He refused to bow out. "I categorically and unequivocally deny the allegation against me by Dr. Ford … I never sexually assaulted Dr. Ford or anyone," Kavanaugh said.

For more than eight hours, the nation watched as the cramped Capitol Hill hearing room hosted the kind of moment that seemed likely to go down as a cultural dividing line.

The day veered between quiet respect in the morning as the Northern California professor told the Senate Judiciary Committee her wrenching story, to searing partisanship in the afternoon, when Kavanaugh and fellow Republicans forcefully defended his character.

They accused Democrats of a political hit in a poorly veiled bid to scuttle the nomination until after the midterm elections that could win them back control of the Senate and influence on Supreme Court appointments.

"I hope the American people can see through this sham. That you knew about it and you held it," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) thundered at his colleagues in a diatribe that turned the mood in the room. "If you vote no, you're legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics."

The nationally televised proceeding, watched by President Trump aboard Air Force One, came charged with practical and symbolic meaning.

It could decide the fate of a nominee who could tilt the ideological balance of the Supreme Court further rightward — with rulings affecting every American — for years to come. And it played out amid a painful national reckoning over sexual abuse and harassment by powerful men, and a movement, #MeToo, that has swept through politics, sports and popular culture.

"The entire country is watching how we handle these allegations," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

She and others pointed back nearly 30 years, when law professor Anita Hill was grilled over her accusations of sexual harassment against another conservative court nominee, Clarence Thomas — an incident that ended with Thomas on the court, and women enraged at how Hill was treated by a Senate panel composed of white men.

The day echoed with the same sense of historic importance. Police vehicles blocked some intersections outside the Capitol. Officers stood vigilant by elevators and stairwells near the high-ceilinged hearing room, cloaked in dark wood, in the Dirksen office building. In the hallways, women watched on their phones, some in tears.

Many wanted to see what, if anything, had changed since the Hill hearing.

Inside, about 50 people filled the gallery, mostly guests of senators and Democratic lawmakers who came to view the scene. As a group, the room fell silent for 18 minutes as Ford laid out her story — an assault she said occurred when she and Kavanaugh were teens in the upper-middle class suburbs of Washington — and seemed to collectively exhale only when she finished.

The 51-year-old spoke calmly, citing psychiatric terms terms to back up her memories. She asked for coffee, was deferential to her questioners, and when the chairman offered a break, said it would be OK if that worked for the committee.

She said she suffered lasting anxiety and post-traumatic stress. When she and her husband renovated their home, Ford said, she insisted on having an extra front door because she sometimes felt trapped. "I am terrified," she said of coming forward in public.

Asked how certain she was that it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her in the early 1980s at a small gathering at a house, Ford didn't hesitate: "100 percent," she said.

Sensitive to the optics of a group of all-male Republicans questioning Ford, the GOP enlisted an Arizona sex-crimes prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, to ask questions for them. Mitchell slowly but methodically probed some shifting details in Ford's account, including her uncertainty about exactly when the alleged assault occurred, and the details of how her story became public. But there were no clashes.

The Republicans remained mostly silent during her testimony, other than when the chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), argued that Democrats should have brought Ford's accusations to light sooner.

Then Kavanaugh arrived.

He entered the room holding his wife's hand, sat alone at the witness table, and launched into a defense brimming with indignation.

"This has destroyed my family and my good name," Kavanaugh said, reading a statement he said he alone had written. "This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups."

He angrily accused Democrats of "lying in wait" with the accusation "if you couldn't take me out on the merits."

What ensued was two hours of questioning that bounced from dramatic to inane. Democrats brought out posters showing Kavanaugh's high school yearbook, prodded him about his beer drinking and teenage boasts about girls.

At one point, the man poised to become the swing vote on the highest court in America was forced to explain to senators that a yearbook comment about "boofing" was a reference to "flatulence."

As Democrats interrogated him, he returned fire.

"There's never been a case where you drank so much you didn't remember what happened the night before?" asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.).

"Have you?" he shot back.

He later apologized — and Klobuchar noted that as the daughter of an alcoholic, she is careful about how much she drinks.

If there was a stumble for Kavanaugh, it came when Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) tried to corner him, urging him to agree to suspend the hearing and seek an FBI investigation, if he was so confident in his denials.

Kavanaugh hesitated, and answered indirectly, saying, "I welcome whatever the committee wants to do because I'm telling the truth."

Kavanaugh and several GOP senators said they didn't doubt that something happened to Ford — but that there was no corroboration that Kavanaugh was the assailant. They pointed to her inability to pin down the date and location, and statements by three witnesses cited by Ford saying they could not support her claim.

The final gavel fell close to 6:45 p.m. When it did, it seemed unlikely that anyone's opinion had changed.

As soon as Friday morning, Republicans said, they planned to force a committee vote on Kavanaugh's nomination.