WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John McCain has cursed and bullied fellow Senate Republicans on a host of issues over the years. Yet McCain's colleagues are setting aside any hard feelings to embrace his White House bid -- for their own good.
In doing so, many are also distancing themselves from Republican President George W. Bush, widely derided for the unpopular Iraq war, ailing economy and soaring gas prices.
"We are going from rallying around one of the most disliked guys in the world, to a guy who is very well liked in America, but not so popular in the Senate," a Senate Republican leadership aide said. "We'll take that."
Republicans hope McCain, long popular among independents, will give them a boost and hold down anticipated Democratic gains in the November congressional elections.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll found that Democrats enjoy a 19-percentage-point lead over Republicans, 52-33, when voters are asked which party they want to control Congress.
By contrast, polls show Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama holding, on average, about a 5-point lead over McCain.
"McCain is running well ahead of his party," said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, which conducts polls on the congressional and presidential contests.
While Bush's approval rating has dipped below 30 percent, a recent Pew poll found 48 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion of McCain, with about 45 percent unfavorable, despite his dogged support of the Iraq war.
"Republicans have a stake in McCain," said Stephen Hess, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "They hope he helps energize their party."
Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican who has had run-ins with a McCain, mostly over federal spending, experienced an election-year conversion.
"The thought of him (McCain) being president sends a cold chill down my spine," Cochran told The Boston Globe in January. "He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."
Yet after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Cochran, who had been a Romney supporter, backed McCain, now the party's presumptive nominee.
"He would be the best president," Cochran declared.
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa says he and McCain stopped talking to each other for a "very long period of time" after a fiery 1992 exchange.
Witnesses say the spat involved McCain cursing, both men shouting and standing toe-to-toe. It occurred during a meeting on whether Vietnam still held any American prisoners of war. McCain was a Vietnam war prisoner for 5-1/2 years.
"In the last 15 years, I haven't had any problems with Senator McCain," Grassley said. A spokeswoman said Grassley has not formally endorsed McCain, but supports him.
Initially, many Senate Republicans were reluctant to endorse McCain largely because of his temper and willingness to buck his party leadership and cut deals with Democrats.
But as McCain, nicknamed "Senator Hothead," emerged as the front-runner, they rallied around him, including many whom he had offended.
McCain swore at Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas at a meeting last year about a bill to revamp U.S. immigration laws that McCain helped craft with Democrats.
PARTING FROM BUSH
"John is very passionate," Cornyn said with a chuckle in recalling the incident. McCain later apologized.
With polls showing most Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track and demanding change, Cornyn said he believes McCain is the only Republican who ran for president this year who could win the White House.
"He's always been independent, and a bit of a maverick," Cornyn said. "People are looking at the future."
At this point, Cornyn said, the 71-year-old Arizona senator is head of the battered Republican Party "whether he likes it or not."
Republicans marched in lock step with Bush during his first six years in office. But they began separating from him on at least some issues after the 2006 elections, which saw Democrats win control of Congress largely because of the Iraq war and dissatisfaction with Bush.
While McCain rallies party support, he still shows a willingness to break ranks with fellow congressional Republicans. He opposed a recent move by Republicans to help Democrats override a Bush veto of a $289 billion farm bill that McCain and the president denounced as excessive.
The president, whose second term ends in January, has offered to campaign for McCain and other Republicans.
But a senior Republican aide, citing Bush's unpopularity, said: "I don't expect any Republicans to campaign with Bush. None. Anywhere."
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