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A second act in politics

Movie star becomes conservative spokesman, then California governor

By the mid-1950s, Ronald Reagan had made the full transformation from liberal to Republican and his acting career had taken a backseat to his political aspirations. In September 1954, he agreed to host television's "General Electric Theater" -- a move that helped speed his transition from actor to full-time politician.

While serving as a corporate ambassador for GE, appearing at functions across America, Reagan developed what came to be known as "The Speech" -- a sentimental, anti-big government paean to a romantic America of a bygone era. In 1964, he delivered a rousing address on behalf of Barry Goldwater, the ultra-conservative Republican presidential candidate, running against President Lyndon B. Johnson. While the speech did not salvage Goldwater's campaign, the former GE host electrified the audience, effectively launching his own political career.

"Immediately, Reagan was being talked about as a candidate for governor of California because he was the most interesting and seemingly electable person to come out of that whole Goldwater debacle," said Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.

With the backing of several wealthy businessmen in Southern California, Reagan ran against the popular Democratic incumbent, Edmund "Pat" Brown, in the 1966 race for California governor.

At first, Brown and his team underestimated Reagan's popular appeal. Eventually they began to fight back, hitting Reagan with a nasty ad campaign that highlighted his co-starring role with a chimp in the 1951 movie "Bedtime for Bonzo."

But Brown already had served two terms, and the public was ready for change. Reagan won by a landslide, making inroads with Democrats as well as independents despite his conservative platform.

On January 3, 1967, Citizen Reagan became Gov. Reagan. His governorship embodied the notion of diminishing government and promoting the free market. It also taught him some key lessons -- foremost, perhaps, that campaign talk often must give way to practical matters.

By the time Reagan left the statehouse after two terms in office, he was poised for one more challenge in his extraordinary career: the run for the White House.

Voices: The tenure in California

Video: Reagan stumps for Goldwater

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