Although Wilson spent nearly twenty years at Princeton, he had never given up his dream to become a statesman. However, until this time, he had never had the opportunity to jump into politics. That opportunity came unexpectedly in the summer of 1910 when Colonel George Harvey and James Smith, Jr.–two of the most powerful men in New Jersey–proposed that Wilson run for state governor that fall. Both men were heavily involved with the New Jersey Democratic political machine: Harvey was the editor of Harper's Weekly Magazine and former U.S. Senator Smith served as the party's boss. The Democrats in the state had suffered heavy losses in the polls in previous years, and they desperately needed a fresh candidate who could reinvigorate the party. True, the president of Princeton was essentially unheard of in political circles, as he had never held a public position and had never served in the bureaucracy. Yet Wilson had already earned a reputation as a reformer and a champion of the people during his widely publicized crusade to transform the university's snobbish and undemocratic eating clubs. Wilson was the perfect candidate for them.

In exchange for his help, Smith and Harvey offered Wilson a shot at the White House in the upcoming 1912 elections. Much as they had in New Jersey, the Democrats had not held much national power since the last Democratic president served in the late 1880s. Wilson had always dreamed of becoming President of the United States, and seized the opportunity these men presented. Wilson agreed to the proposal and soon resigned from his position at Princeton to campaign.

The campaign itself was wholly uneventful. Wilson's Republican opponent had been involved in multiple scandals in the past, and his character therefore paled in comparison to the immaculately wholesome Wilson. Woodrow traveled throughout New Jersey and campaigned as a conservative but progressive Democrat. Progressive politicians during the early twentieth century came from both parties and initiated reforms in government and society. Many progressive political objectives involved transferring power from big industry and machine politics to the people. Many critics denounced Wilson as a hypocrite because of his machine-backed campaign. Surprisingly, Wilson responded that if elected, he would strip the Democratic machine of its power. His own power of oration motivated and excited New Jerseyans to such a degree that after Election Day, Wilson had won the gubernatorial office with the largest majority vote for a Democrat up to that time.

Governor Wilson kept his word. When Boss Smith decided he wanted to serve in the U.S. Senate again and pressured Wilson to endorse him, the newly elected governor held to his progressive ideals and refused. During this time period in New Jersey, senators were elected by the state legislature, not by the people. Wilson fought tenaciously to build a strong enough coalition in the legislature to keep Smith out of office. His eventual success greatly weakened the machine and at the same time boosted Wilson's credibility and political power.

Wilson achieved other gubernatorial victories as well. He successfully pushed his Geran Bill, which stipulated that party candidates had to be nominated to run in primary elections rather than merely be appointed by the machine bosses. Other legislation included a bill to reduce bribery of government officials, another to establish the Public Utility Commission to set utility rates, and a third to establish a workers' compensation program. Governor Wilson's success in enacting so many pieces of progressive legislation won him national fame. He was not only seen as a progressive, but also as a politician who could cut through red tape and bureaucracy to accomplish his goals.

As the national election year of 1912 drew nearer, many Democrats throughout the country began to look more closely at Woodrow Wilson as a serious candidate for the Presidency. Even though he was a newcomer to politics–he had not even been Governor for two years–Wilson had charisma, had popular support, and had accomplished nearly every one of his goals while in office. Furthermore, the Democratic Party could not seriously consider many others: although many Democrats in Congress sought the party's nomination, they lacked Wilson's charisma and record. The party had also suffered losses under the guidance of the "Great Commoner," William Jennings Bryan, who had already been defeated in three Presidential elections and claimed that he would not disappoint the party by trying to run in a fourth. Indeed, many thought Wilson was the best option, and the Democratic Party awarded him the nomination at the 1912 convention.

Wilson could not have chosen a better year to run for President. The 1912 Presidential election was a race among four candidates: Governor Wilson on the Democratic ticket, incumbent President William Howard Taft with the Republican nomination, former President Theodore Roosevelt for the new Progressive "Bull Moose" Party, and Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate. Although Debs did not provide any serious competition, and Taft's bungled term as President had already ruined his chance of being reelected, Roosevelt was a real threat. Roosevelt had already served almost two full terms as a Republican President from 1901 to 1908 and had established himself as the most powerful progressive in the nation. Moreover, the public adored him for his adventurous spirit and no-nonsense attitude.

On the other hand, Taft and Roosevelt were embroiled in a bitter feud during the campaign–a particularly nasty and brutal feud that was splashed on the front pages of newspapers throughout the year. Consequently, after a year of dueling, the two men literally split the Republican Party in two, the conservatives siding with Taft and the progressives aligning with Roosevelt. This split weakened the party and paved the way to victory for Wilson. He easily defeated his three opponents in the Electoral College, his 435 votes easily topping Roosevelt's eighty-eight, Taft's eight, and Debs's zero. Wilson was inaugurated twenty-eighth President of the United States on March 4, 1913.

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