Some campaigns are born of bright ideals. John Anderson's began in bitterness and despair.

It was the summer of 1978 and the congressman from Illinois was already looking past his expected reelection to the end of his political career. He was a bruised man that summer. The New Right had picked him as a target for political extinction and a somewhat resentful Anderson almost became a sitting duck. At the last moment he woke up. With the help of Washington's politically secular establishment, he survived a bitter primary election in his own Republican Party.

But the experience left scars -- and new fears. Anderson realized the conservatives would be back to try again. After 18 years of what he considered to be distinguished service in Congress, he wanted it only to go away.

During that period he sought out an old friend, Rep. Morris Udall, the liberal Democrat from Arizona. That summer, some of Anderson's supporters in Illinois had approached him about running for the presidency and the idea appealed to Anderson. It would be a way to take the fight back to those in his party who opposed him. It was better than staying in the House of Representatives.

"He wanted out," Udall recalls. "He wife wanted out. So he decided to go out in style. He decided to go for the big one."

The "big one" may yet elude John Anderson, who once described his career as one of "failed dreams," but the bitterness and despair have washed away. In the shifting sands of presidential politics in 1980, John Anderson is now on top of the dunes: the front-runner in his own home state of Illinois, the darling of disgruntled Democrats, Independents and young collegians. He is also the beneficiary of some of the most flattering media attention in modern-day politics.

"I'm not singing the blues," Anderson said in an interview yesterday.

Heady stuff for the man once described by the Chicago Tribune as a "cornbelt yes-man." For if the bitterness that sparked his first presidential musings was uncharcteristic of this born-again Christian man, so too is the mythology of John B. Different that is building up around him.

He runs as "the different Republican" on "a campaign of ideas." He seeks the high road of the antipolitician in the petty world of party politics. sHis is a hot message that sizzles across the cool medium of television. Behind the imagery is a more complex and human story -- the metamorphosis of a small town man.

Some of it is by now well known: his conversion on civil rights, his celebrated deviations from party orthodoxy, his early break with the Nixon White House over Watergate, his intellectual courage and personal integrity.

But there is more about John Anderson, which does not fit the new image and might startle some of his Democratic admirers: his talent for blistering partisanship on the House floor, his penchant for occasional moral arrogance, his adherence to much of the Republican doctrine, his long support for the war policies of Richard Nixon, his failure to pass several liberal litmus tests over the years.

Many of Anderson's friends from the House of Representatives backed George Bush for president and are frankly surprised at Anderson's success. "He's the first Republican since Wendell Willkie to excite enthusiasm rather than just respect," says Rep. Paul N. (Pete) McCloskey (R-Calif.). "He's doing what I'd hoped George Bush could do."

Most of his old colleagues see a recognizable John Anderson on the campaign trail these days, but one newer member of the House does not.

"I think the John Anderson who is running for president is not the John Anderson who was in the House," says Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. "I've always liked him. But I think it is almost amazing that the stories have been about how this is the one man who is consistent in his support of certain principles. The face of the matter is, he was never that liberal. Now he's talking like Ted Kennedy. John looked for where there was an opening on the spectrum. There was one on the left and he took it."

It is a measure of the Anderson phenomenon this year that admirers have ascribed to him virtues that would make a normal man blush. Because what's good about any presidential candidate naturally gets exaggerated, the heroism of John Anderson has been overstated. He did not change from congressman to hero overnight when he declared for the presidency; nor was he born a hero; nor, really, is he one now. What he is, is a man who has been unafraid to change.

John Anderson was born in 1922 in Rockford, Ill., which is in the northwestern part of the state. His partents were children of Swedish immigrants, and his father, who is 94 today, ran a grocery store in the predominantly Swedish section of town. Anderson's parents had six children, but three died in childhood of scarlet fever and pneumonia.

He grew up in a deeply religious family. "They believed that outside of the home and school, time should be devoted to church," Anderson wrote in his book "Between Two Worlds."

"That not only meant Sunday evening evangelistic service. It meant Sunday morning church service when a 45-minute sermon was not considered unduly long, young people's service at five o'clock, and then a Sunday evening evangelistic service. It meant attendance at Wednesday night prayer meeting services, as well as the frequent 'special' meeting which would bring well-known evangelists and Bible teachers to our city."

The Andersons went to tent meetings on hot August nights, and it was at one of these gatherings that 9-year-old John Anderson accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior.

"There under the canvas of what had once been the 'Big Top' of one of those innumerable little circuses that toured the country but have now become sanctified as any great cathedral, I fell on my knees and beseeched God's mercy," he later wrote in the Evangelical Beacon.

"For me personally, the recollection of the night of my rebirth does far more than provoke a nostalgia for the carefree days of childhood. It serves as a constant reminder of the miracle of regeneration. It provides the assurance that the same Christ who could touch the heart of a child is also sufficient unto all of my needs today."

As a young man, Anderson tried different things before settling into law and politics in his hometown. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he took a fling in the Foreign Service in 1952 and met his future wife, Keke, on a trip to Germany. They were married in January 1953, in the oldest Protestant church in West Berlin.

Two years later, they returned to Rockford, where he again picked up his law practice and politics. In the spring of 1956 he won a five-man race for the Republican nomination for state's attorney. "I prayed over this initial decision to seek public office, just as I have prayed over every major decision in my life," he wrote later.

He was three years into his term when Rep. Leo Allen, the long-time congressman from that part of Illinois, decided to retire. Anderson beat four other Republicans in the primary and went on to win the conservative 16th District. He arrived in Washington at the beginning of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier.

Anderson's first six years in Congress were distinguished by solid midwestern conservatism, his almost perfect party-line voting record and his appointment to the House Rules Committee.

He voted against nearly everything in those early years: raising the national debt, buying U.N. bonds, foreign aid, public service jobs, food stamps, mass transit aid, Medicare, the war-on-poverty, the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On 68 key votes during those first six years, he sided with the majority of Republicans 66 times. Once he broke with the GOP majority to side with the conservatives against a college funding bill. Another time he broke with his party to vote for pay raises for members of Congress, judges and other federal officials.

"You are plunged into a frightening environment," he recalled later. "I followed a man who had the reputation [of being a party voter] in the district. But there is a process of maturation that occurs. We in the House have a somewhat provincial outloo, which is the way it should be because we are supposed to be closer to the people.

"But the longer you serve, the more you realize that what you try to do is reconcile the views of your district with the larger goal of trying to be aware of issues on a national scale," he said.

For Anderson, the turning point was civil rights, the open housing bill of 1968, and his religion guided him through the conversion. "The whole atmosphere [of the 60s] began to register itself on my conscience," he said in an interview in 1971. "It began to convince me that times had changed and that some of us -- grudgingly -- were going to have to change. Old habit patterns die hard. Some people have a fetish about consistency. I think it ignores the kind of accelated change taking place in society. . . .

"The Great Commandments simply mean that given an interdependent society, we are all accountable for what's around us. There are some people today who say that's dangerous radicalism -- approaching socialism. But Christ himself was concerned enough that when the people were hungry, they were fed."

Anderson made his public conversion on the day Martin Luther King Jr. was buried in Atlanta.In Washington, the House Rules Committee gathered to vote on whether to send the open housing bill to the floor or to a House-Senate conference committee, from which it might never emerge. Two years earlier, Anderson had voted against open housing. A few weeks earlier he had supported the Republicans who voted to delay consideration of the bill. That Tuesday, with the fumes from the city's riots fresh in his nostrils, with the rhetoric of the Kerner Commission report ringing in his ears, Anderson broke with is party and cast the deciding vote to send the bill to the floor.

The next day, as the House debated the bill, Anderson gave the most memorable speech of his congressional career. "Let's all men, black or white, understand that the religion of liberty is based on a reverence and respect for the law. But let us not be blind to the necessity of also rendering justice to the patient and the long-suffering who do not riot but who will be brought to the brink of despair if, like the priest and the Levite, we simply turn aside."

Anderson had embraced his Christian convictions, but to some of his Republican colleagues he had abandoned his conservative principles. Neither he nor they ever got over it.

The next January, his colleagues elected him chairman of the House Republican Conference, succeeding Melvin Laird who became secretary of defense. "It was an incredible accomplishment for him to become part of the leadership," Udall says. "People who disagreed with him admired him for his integrity. It's a measure of John's regard that they [other Republicans] respect him."

Over the next several years, Anderson wrestled privately with his conscience on the Vietname war, but for the most part he stayed loyal to Richard Nixon and his policy of Vietnamization.

"I was just convinced on the basis of the continual briefings at the White House -- and I was a member of the leadership and that carried with it a certain responsibility to support the policy unless it was totally wrong -- that there was progress being made on the reduction of our involvement," he said yesterday. "As long as there was measurable progress, I could hang in there."

In August 1972, the House took up a bill that would have terminated U.S. involvement in Indochina by Oct. 1, subject to certain conditions. It was the most serious challenge to Nixon's policies to date, and the House Democratic caucu and the House Foreign Affairs Committee supported the move. House Democratic and Republican leaders opposed it. Anderson voted with Nixon.

Today, Anderson says he regrets his support of the war more than any other position he ever took in public life.

But the episode that caused him the most public pain was Watergate. If he was not the first Republican to break with Richard Nixon, Anderson was one of the first, and he still remembers the incident that brought him wrath from his Republican colleagues.

"It was a speech in Chicago in May 1973," he says. "I remember the phrase that aggravated people was when I said that the grudging, step-by-step admission of wrongdoing by the White House, rather than coming clean with the electorate, was something I found disturbing. I was rebuked for not being totally loyal."

"He really got clobbered," recalls one of his friends.

"The harshness of the response he got from his colleagues and from people back home [changed him]," this friend says. "There were times when he and Keke went back to Rockford and would go to the country club and get snubbed. It bothered him. He saw those people as narrow-minded. He was never able to empathize with how he looked to them from out there."

Back in his district, his once-loyal supporters saw a new John Anderson. "He's always so quick to get on television to say something bad about Nixon," one of his constituents said at the time. "He seems to go out of his way to do it."

Many of his House colleagues felt the same way. It wasn't just that he disagreed with them. It was that he was so damn eloquent about it, so sure of his convictions. And they thought he took advantage of his leadership position to get on television to put out his own views.

When moral and social issues give way to economic problems, Anderson has less trouble being a conventional Republican. He has often led the charge against the Democrats. "He was a very eloquent spokesman for the Republican side," say Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). "When he laid the lash on our side, he did it with eloquence and harshness."

Anderson has voted against such liberal articles of faith as repeal of the oil depletion allowance, public service jobs, common site picketing. He has voted for natural gas deregulation and an end to oil price controls. In June 1975, he joined 344 other colleagues to kill a proposed 20-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline. Today he calls for a tax of 50 cents a gallon.

In the strange ways of political affections, liberals have blistered Jimmy Carter, the Democratic president, for many of the same positions which they seem willing to overlook in John Anderson.

Still, he votes often enough with the Democrats to irritate GOP loyalists. He voted for a tough strip-mine control bill vetoed by President Ford, opposed the B1 bomber, advocated public financing of House elections, and cosponsored the Alaska lands bill with his friend "Mo" Udall in the face of united Republican support for an alternative.

"He conveys a greater moral tone to his own positions than to the positions of others," a Republican in the House complained. "He puts his own political career above the goals of the party. I voted for him for conference chairman last time around. I wouldn't again."

Anderson dislikes playing the politician. He does not think of himself as a "regular guy." But his critics see in his current campaign a streak of political opportunish that they find unattractive. They cite, for instance, Anderson's appearance before the Gun Owners of New Hampshire, where he was roundly booed for supporting gun control, as a cynical political move to get on television.

They also see opportunism in Anderson's current emphasis on the problems of nuclear power, rather than his long record of support for nuclear power. Anderson sees it differently. "I haven't said we should pull the plug," he said."Until we immplement the recommendations of the Kemeny Commission, I just think we ought to go slow. I feel very comfortable in my own mind that I'm not tailoring my position to the people."

But Udall observes: "It is true that a lot of the campus types would be surprised to see how he favors nuclear power and lots of other conservative positions."

John Anderson's campaign for the presidency remains a long shot, but already he's accomplished more than he originally expected.

"He went into this with his eyes open," says Udall. "What he's doing is broadening the base of the Republican Party so that in eight to 10 years, another John Anderson can get the nomination.

"He will not have been in vain. He's raised a high banner and a high standard. What the hell. That's not a bad way to go out."