Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his campaign tried yesterday to neutralize a blistering attack by his state's largest newspaper, which questioned whether his "volcanic" temper renders him unfit to be president.

While McCain has been winning raves from the national media, the Arizona Republic offered a far harsher assessment in an editorial Sunday.

The newspaper, which has supported McCain in his Senate campaigns, said he "often insults people and flies off the handle," can be "sarcastic and condescending," and that there is "reason to seriously question whether McCain has the temperament, and the political approach and skills, we want in the next president of the United States."

Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director, took issue with the assault: "Anybody who knows John McCain knows that he gets angry. Show me a politician who's never offended anyone and I'll show you a politician who's never gotten anything done."

Among those mobilized by the campaign yesterday, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), said the senator "has a reputation for not suffering fools well, and frankly I think it's kind of refreshing . . . Sometimes people's noses get out of joint."

Other McCain supporters suggested that the Phoenix newspaper is trying to win some national attention. But Keven Ann Willey, the Republic's editorial page editor, dismissed that idea as "ludicrous," saying the paper's criticism was "nothing new."

"There is a lot to admire" in McCain, Willey said, "but we also have a fuller picture of the rest of John McCain." Noting that the senator has "shouted" at her, Willey said: "I've not been called a liar or an idiot, but I've witnessed others [at the paper] being called liars and idiots . . . He's quite good at making his unhappiness plain."

The contretemps reflects the increased scrutiny surrounding McCain as he emerges as the principal GOP challenger to Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary. McCain has been buoyed by what Slate magazine's Jacob Weisberg calls a "collective swoon" by national reporters impressed by his candor and accessibility.

But a politician can look very different to journalists back home--it was an Arkansas editorial writer who dubbed Bill Clinton "Slick Willie"--and the scars of accumulated battles can be slow to heal.

Some of what Willey calls "past tensions" with McCain involved the Keating Five influence-peddling probe a decade ago. And McCain did not speak to the Republic for more than a year after the newspaper published a 1994 cartoon depicting his wife Cindy, who had acknowledged an addiction to painkillers, shaking an emaciated black child upside down to get prescription drugs.

"He gets very angry when people attack his family, his wife," said Torie Clarke, McCain's Senate spokeswoman in the 1980s. She said staffers at the Republic "think he ought to suck up to them, and he doesn't do that."

Keith Rosenblum, a former Republic reporter who works for McCain supporter Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), said the paper used McCain as "a whipping boy" because McCain "refused to kowtow to them."

Amy Silverman, a reporter for the alternative Phoenix New Times, said she got "the full John McCain treatment," including an invitation to visit his home, while working on a 1994 article. McCain didn't like the piece, and "I got the silent treatment. . . . He didn't speak to me for five years."

But Mark Kimble, associate editor of the Tucson Citizen, said that in numerous conversations "we've never had any problems with him. He's never dressed us down. He's never exploded at us or given me any indication he has a hot temper."

The Republic editorial was prompted by a New York Times report last week in which Arizona's GOP governor, Jane Hull, described his occasional eruptions at her. That article also included critical comments from Michigan Gov. John Engler, a chief Bush supporter. A Republic news story Sunday quoted Engler's spokesman as criticizing "the McCain temper."

McCain last week blamed the Bush campaign for orchestrating "personal attacks" against him, and sought to turn the issue to his advantage in a New Hampshire debate: "People say that perhaps John McCain gets angry. My friends, I get angry when we spend $350 million on a carrier the Navy doesn't want or need."

McCain spokesman Schnur said the campaign is "flattered by the attacks. You don't see the Bush campaign sending its supporters after Alan Keyes or Orrin Hatch." Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said her colleagues are "puzzled" by the accusation, adding that "candidates running for president should expect that people are going to be critical of them at times."

Three of those mentioned in the Republic editorial were asked about the incidents yesterday. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), described as having endured a "shouting match" with McCain after the John Tower confirmation battle in 1989, said the incident either didn't happen or was so minor he forgot it. But Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) says McCain screamed at him on the Senate floor "that he would pay for it" after Shelby opposed Tower as defense secretary, according to an aide.

Former Arizona governor Rose Mofford also acknowledged having been dressed down by McCain. "It was a very unpleasant experience," she said.

Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

CAPTION: GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) speaks at a VFW post in South Carolina.