When Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968, the journalist Hugh Sidey wrote about him in LIFE: “He is not a candidate in the ordinary sense: he is a President-in-waiting.” Nixon’s confidence in his chances was owed in part to the political climate—Democrats divided over Vietnam, urban unrest at home—and in part to the fact that by 1968, he’d already spent a hefty portion of his adult life on the campaign trail.
Nixon, who was born on Jan. 9, 1913, ran his first political campaign in 1946 with a successful bid for U.S. Congress. He followed that with another successful bid, for Senate in 1950, and two successful campaigns for vice president, with Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1952 and 1956. Then came the losses: first for president, losing to John F. Kennedy in 1960—thanks in part to his lackluster appearance at the first-ever televised presidential debate—and then for governor of California, two years later.
When Nixon returned from several years of laying low to run for president in 1968, President Johnson called him a “chronic campaigner.” It may have been meant as an insult, but replace "chronic" with a slightly more neutral modifier and it was most certainly rooted in truth. The LIFE archives offer a pictorial evolution of his career as a candidate, one which led Sidey to describe him as having “adopted the manners and the methods and sometimes even the moods of a President” long before voters confirmed him as such.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.