While Roosevelt's mother thought his illness was a sign he should retire from politics, he thought the opposite. FDR, with Howe's help, presented himself as the bridge between the two wings of the Democratic Party. One wing, which was largely Catholic, eastern, urban, and ethnic, was represented by Al Smith, whose nomination for President in 1924 FDR strongly supported. The other half, primarily Protestant, southern, western, and rural, was represented by William Jennings Bryan and William McAdoo. FDR used the talent he had developed charming his parents and their friends in Hyde Park to charm both sides of the Democratic Party and bring them together.

After months of resisting pressure to run for Governor of New York, FDR decided that it was time to move beyond mere political mediation. Al Smith personally asked him to run in order to offset the negative effects that Smith's Catholicism would have on the presidential race in New York. Roosevelt campaigned for Governor even more energetically than he had in the past, to prove to himself and to all the voters and fellow politicians that his illness had not taken anything away from him. Smith lost his home state to Herbert Hoover in the presidential election, but Roosevelt won his gubernatorial race by a narrow margin.

FDR, realizing that the next step from the Governor's seat was the Presidency, chose his political aides wisely, with an eye to mollifying all his possible opponents. He kept many appointees on his staff that Al Smith had made while he was Governor, and continued his positive relationship with Tammany Hall. It was during FDR's first term as Governor that the Great Depression hit the country. Roosevelt proved to be an excellent Depression governor. His support of issues such as tax relief for farmers, public development of hydroelectric power, stricter regulation of phone and utility rates, and a neutral stance on Prohibition considerably broadened his support. Voters saw that he would provide direct aid in return for their loyalty in the next election. FDR won the 1930 reelection by more than 725,000 votes, a much larger margin than his last win. In 1931, he established a Temporary Emergency Relief Administration headed by one of his most able advisors, Harry Hopkins, which would address problems faced by the state in the Depression era conditions. Hopkins and the Administration were hugely popular, and prevented some of the desperation that afflicted the rest of the nation.

In Washington, President Hoover's attitude to the Depression was very different. A staunch conservative, Hoover was reluctant to spend federal funds for direct aid, and did not push for any major legislative changes. To the ailing country, it appeared as if the President was doing nothing to aid them. The Democrats were poised for a presidential victory. In 1932, FDR, believing that his political moment had come, assembled the Brain Trust, a group of campaign advisors and speechwriters to aid him in getting the Presidential nomination. Louis Howe was busy working with the chairman of the state Democratic Party to line up local and state party organizations behind FDR. The bulk of Roosevelt's party support in the primaries came from southern Democrats, who realized that FDR was the candidate most likely to avoid the battles over religion and Prohibition that had divided the Democratic Party in recent elections in the 1920s.

The Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago in 1932, was charged with suspense. In the first three roll calls, FDR was short a hundred votes of the two-thirds majority needed for the presidential nomination. John Nance Garner, a Congressman from Texas, finally threw his support behind FDR, and was given the nomination for Vice President in return. FDR, in an unprecedented move, flew to Chicago to personally accept the nomination, in an effort to assure his party and the people that his paralysis would not prevent him from being an able President. Roosevelt ended this speech outlining his plan for the Presidency with a promise to the people, saying "I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people."

American voters were in a foul mood during the election of 1932. The number of unemployed workers had risen to eleven million and poverty was rampant. Hoover was re-nominated in Chicago without much enthusiasm. His platform heaped inordinate praise on the Republican anti-Depression policies and harped on the Prohibition issue, saying control would be given back to the States. In sharp contrast, FDR's political appeal was staggering, as he was an excellent orator. His record of heavy state spending for Depression aid in New York gave him wide appeal, and his wife had a great deal of political cachet among women. His high spirits and jaunty angled cigarette holder were in sharp contrast to Hoover's gloomy predictions of grass growing on the streets of cities if the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was repealed. The theme song of the Democrats, "Happy Days are Here Again," well suited the mood of FDR's campaign.

Roosevelt roundly defeated Hoover in the election of 1932 with an electoral count of 472 to 59. Notably, this was the first election in which the African- American vote began to shift from the party of Lincoln to the Democratic Party–an alliance that was cemented in the next election. Having suffered the worst of the Depression, African-Americans were eager to support the Party that promised welfare for the people. Hoover, meanwhile, worked feverishly in the lame-duck months between Roosevelt's election and inauguration. However, without the ability to pass long-term legislation and without the support of the President-elect, Hoover was unable to accomplish anything of note. Banks continued to close all over the country, and people continued to take their money out of them leaving the federal government powerless to stop it.

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