The Democrats decided it was time to play the “change card”, and JFK would take full advantage. In many ways, JFK was the opposite of Nixon, but they had some things in common, such as family troubles and a desire for glory. But JFK (and his campaign manager RFK) had far fewer scruples than Nixon in terms of politics and campaigning, and they targeted Nixon’s #1 campaign guy, Murray Chotiner, for destruction. RFK was counsel to a Senate committee which went after Chotiner for trading access to Nixon for personal gain. Chotiner was forced to leave the Nixon fold, and the Vice-President would be without his valuable help and expertise in 1960.
To JFK, Sputnik was sent from Heaven, since it made Ike vulnerable on national security. Nixon advised Ike and his Circle of Trust that things would get worse on the national security front before it improved. To Nixon’s frustration, Ike’s overall approach as his second term ended was to be a caretaker, holding serve before he left the White House.
Nixon’s march to the Republican nomination in 1960 featured hard-won ascents, slip-ups, and resiliency. One of the events that enhanced Vice-President Nixon’s political street cred was getting ambushed in his motorcade in Caracas (Venezuela) by a mob in the Spring of 1958. Trouble during VP Nixon’s South America Goodwill Tour started in Peru, where Nixon was told by the US Ambassador to Peru that if he made a public appearance, a violent mob almost certainly would be waiting. Nixon’s dilemma: should he cancel his appearance, where he and the US would look weak, or should risk his safety and make his appearance. Nixon actually walked into the crowd, and rocks were thrown, with at least one hitting Nixon on the shoulder. Nixon demanded a dignified walk back to the cars, and as the convertible drove away, a Secret Service agent held down Nixon’s ankles to keep him in the car.
On 13 May 1958, Nixon arrived in Venezuela, where a crowd welcomed the VP by spitting at/on him, a far worse reception than what he experienced arriving in Peru. While Nixon’s motorcade was heading to the grave of Simon Bolivar so Nixon could lay a wreath, the convoy was attacked by demonstrators that rushed up to the cars. Secret Service agents pushed away the demonstrators who had hate in their eyes, and in that mob were hardened battle-tested Communist insurgents. The mob started to rock Nixon’s car, and Nixon ordered the Secret Service detail in his car to not do anything unless he was forcibly removed from the car. Finally, the Venezuelan police ended the sham traffic jam which had forced the motorcade to stop, and the US contingent sped away. Later, when Nixon processed what had happened, he concluded that he had gone through a near-death experience.
During the Fall of 1958, Nixon experienced a valley instead of a pinnacle, with the Republicans getting their hats handed to them in the Congressional Elections of 1958. The Republicans were about as dispirited as they had been after FDR and the Democrats drubbed them in 1932. The furor over Sputnik had been followed by a recession, rising unemployment, trouble in the agricultural sector, and corruption in the federal government, which included Chief of Staff Sherman Adams (he had accepted gifts in ways that looked dishonest). Ike couldn’t bring himself to fire Adams, so he enlisted VP Nixon (among others) to do his dirty work. Nixon absolutely hated face-to-face confrontation, but he did his best to convince Adams to fall on his sword for Ike. Nixon called dealing with Adams the single-most difficult task ever given to him by Ike.
California already had a Republican governor, Goodwin Knight, who also had designs on the White House and an ambitious wife. Since Ike’s heart attack, Knowland and Knight had done their best to keep Nixon from ascending to the pinnacle of the GOP, and the “Big Switch” was in effect their strategy to deny Nixon the nomination in 1960 while advancing their own ambitions. In the Fall of 1957, Knowland announced that he was running for CA governor no matter what Knight planned on doing. To avoid a destructive Republican primary, Palmer and Nixon convinced Knight to pursue Knowland’s soon-to-be vacant Senate seat. Knight resisted until the CA Republican Party threatened to cut off campaign funds. The whole affair played out in public, with even the wives going at each other in the media.
In New York, liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller was elected governor, and he would prove to be the main obstacle for Nixon’s pursuit of the GOP nomination in 1960. As 1958 closed, Nixon had serious doubts that he could win the nomination, whereas JFK/RFK were very optimistic of their prospects, since they had been campaigning in effect since 1956. Then, all of a sudden, Nixon found himself at another pinnacle with the “Kitchen Debate” with USSR Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1959.