During two terms as governor of California, Reagan cut spending on health, education and welfare and refined his conservative ideology
Reagans pave road to the White House
Reagan's first months in Sacramento would prove to be a crash course in the business of governing. Despite a slow start, Reagan went on to win a second term, refining his conservative ideology and building a political base that would carry him to Washington.
After arriving in the capital, Reagan set about immediately to fulfill campaign promises to lower taxes, cut spending and shrink the government.
With no governing experience and a staff of self-declared novices, Reagan's first decision as governor was a disaster. Facing a huge budget deficit and high state spending, Reagan instituted a 10 percent cut in government across the board.
When the hoped-for results didn't materialize, Reagan was forced to raise taxes by $1 billion.
The budget cuts angered students at the turbulent University of California at Berkeley, who protested in force. It was unsettling for Reagan, after years of playing the hero, to be cast as villain.
The student revolt reached a climax in the spring of 1969. Protesters had the campus paralyzed. Taking a hard line, Reagan sent in the California Highway Patrol, a move that heightened tensions and Reagan's disfavor among students.
But tired of the unruly demonstrations rampant in the '60s and '70s, Reagan stood up to the protesters with the slogan, "Observe the rules or get out."
In 1970, with little to show for his first term, Reagan ran for re-election and easily won.
If confrontation marked his first term, collaboration was key in his second.
Reagan's tax hike paid off, and he was able to give the public several tax rebates.
He also pushed through substantive welfare reform, which tightened eligibility and gave welfare recipients work while increasing payments to the neediest. More than 300,000 names were removed from the welfare rolls.
In the process, Reagan cultivated a loyal following of influential and well-heeled supporters whose help would be integral in getting him to Washington. It also gave him the confidence to continue in politics.
A steep learning curve
Biographer Lou Cannon chronicles in "Reagan" the political education by trial and error of a governor who "had goals, but no programs ... (and) did not know how government functioned or the processes by which it reached its objectives."
Reagan is sworn in for his first term as governor in 1966
The future president, Cannon wrote, learned the ropes of leadership "at taxpayers' expense during which California's much maligned and highly professional state government bureaucracy did the actual governing."
Leaving the details to aides became a Reagan hallmark, sometimes with mixed results. But he stood by his style.
"I don't believe a chief executive should supervise every detail of what goes on in his organization," Reagan wrote in "An American Life," defending the management style he employed in California and, later, in Washington.
While leaving policy implementation to others, Reagan's ideology was of his own making.
Even in his early political years, Reagan showed he could keep the upper hand with the media, controlling access while being charming.
Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who wrote speeches for Reagan in the White House, recalls a night in the governor's yard in the 1960s. A rookie reporter was hoping for an interview for a small wire service.
Nancy asked him to leave, but Reagan followed him down the driveway. With shaving cream on his face, Reagan said, "If you can spend the night in my back lawn, I can spend five minutes with you. Now what's the problem?"
While he knew how to charm them, Reagan also found ways to circumvent reporters. In a nod to the fireside chats of his early political hero, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took his case straight to the American people via radio and television.
That approach "worked better than I ever dreamed it would" in winning over public opinion, Reagan boasted in his autobiography.
White House ambitions
All the while Reagan was in Sacramento, he had his eye on the White House. In 1968, just 18 months after he was elected to lead California, Reagan announced his intention to run for the presidency at the Republican National Convention. It was too late to take the Republican nomination from Richard Nixon but it put the party on notice of his ambitions.
Reagan sat out 1972, but in 1975 he left the governorship on a groundswell of support for another run at the White House.
The Reagans also bought their beloved Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara, which later served as a retreat from the pressures of Washington.
In 1976, Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Trounced in the early primaries, Reagan held his ground, refusing to throw in the towel.
Looking for an issue to ignite the campaign, Reagan settled on one familiar to him -- the threat of a new communist menace.
He lost the candidacy by just 60 delegates, establishing himself as a viable candidate for a future run.
Four years later, Reagan tried again, this time easily winning the GOP nomination. He chose as his running mate a defeated rival and party stalwart, George Bush, who had been a Texas congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and CIA director.
Reagan's platform called for a return to so-called American values, a reduced federal government, and tax cuts to stimulate economic growth, in keeping with a supply-side theory of growth. Reagan also promised to balance the budget. The conservative agenda included reduced business regulation, voluntary school prayer and opposition to abortion.
In the final pre-election debate, Reagan deflected President Jimmy Carter's attacks on his policies by suggesting distortions with the refrain, "There you go again." And he delivered the memorable closing line, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
Public frustration with high inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis tipped the scales in Reagan's favor. He won 51 percent of the popular vote, and 44 states, to Carter's 41 percent and six states. At age 69, he also became the oldest man ever elected president.
As Reagan moved to the White House, he was poised to parlay his landslide into one of the most popular presidencies of the 20th century.
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