Former President Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 presidential campaign and his near-victory over then-President Gerald Ford in 1976 are well-documented, but his 1968 presidential run is considered to be an afterthought. Numerous Reagan biographers devote little time to it, referring to the 1968 campaign as ill-timed and poorly-run. But Gene Kopelson, in his book Reagan's 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK and Reagan's Emergence As a World Statesman thoroughly details the 1968 campaign and documents Reagan's evolution to the world statesman that Americans still love and admire to this day.
When Reagan decided to enter into the world of politics, he turned to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower for guidance. Eisenhower became the hidden hand that helped turn Reagan into a world statesman, providing him with valuable foreign policy knowledge and political strategy. For instance, Reagan's 11th commandment of never attacking another Republican personally came from Eisenhower. Eisenhower's message of describing conservatism as "common-sense" was also a common theme throughout Reagan's political speeches. The former general's foreign policy tactics of using threats and taking nothing off the table -including the use of nuclear weapons - can also be traced to Reagan's well-known "We win, they lose" approach to the Soviet Union.
After using Eisenhower's advice to propel him to the California governorship, Reagan and his aides began plotting a possible path to the 1968 presidency. Reagan wanted to become a presidential candidate only if the grassroots called for it - as Eisenhower had told him - so he ran a stealth campaign. Reagan would deny being a presidential candidate up until the Republican convention in Miami Beach, but behind the scenes his campaign would stir up support from grassroots conservatives who fell in love with Reagan's strong charisma and masterful articulation of conservative principles. The strategy was to focus on the three states, Wisconsin, Oregon and Nebraska, which had opt-out primaries, where a candidate could only be off the ballot if they openly filed to do so, and slowly build up momentum to make then-candidate Richard Nixon nervous. After the opt-out primaries, Reagan would become California's "favorite son" and go into the Republican convention with enough delegates to deny Nixon a first-ballot victory and win the hearts of the delegates in the second or third rounds.
Reagan's campaign ended up being unsuccessful, but he caused Nixon to sweat heavily well into the Republican convention; Reagan almost denied Nixon a first-ballot victory. Kopelson speculates that perhaps if Reagan had more experienced campaign staffers, or even if Robert F. Kennedy - who was Reagan's political nemesis - hadn't been assassinated, Reagan would have won the nomination. But the main takeaway from the book is that the 1968 campaign was Reagan's dress rehearsal into what the world would see in 1976 and 1980: a world statesman advocating for "bold colors" instead of "sickly pastels" (which would later turn into "pale pastels.") Kopelson's book is an absolute must-read.