Following JFK's failed attempt to win the vice presidential nomination in 1956, his political ambitions only heightened; during his next three years in the Senate, Jack spoke frequently with his family and advisers about a potential bid for the presidency in 1960. Thus it was hardly surprising when Jack formally announced his candidacy on 2 January 1960. Though Jack, Bobby, and Joe Sr. strongly believed that Jack could win, he was initially considered a long shot in a crowded field of Democratic competitors that included Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Of particular concern was Jack's Catholicism. Time and again, Jack was told that America was a Protestant country unwilling to elect a Catholic to the highest office in the land. Though he was occasionally discouraged by those remarks, Kennedy campaigned with confidence, winning over voters across the country with his charm and easy nature.
Bobby reprised his role as Jack's campaign manager, running a primary campaign that focused on Jack's role as a congressman, war hero, accomplished author, and loving father (Jack's daughter, Caroline, had been born in 1957). At the Democratic Convention, as a result of his unrelenting campaigning in states like Wisconsin and West Virginia, JFK was successful in securing the nomination. He selected Lyndon B. Johnson, an experienced Southern Democrat and the Senate Majority Leader, as his vice presidential running mate. In his acceptance speech on 15 July, Kennedy delivered a message that would set the tone for the remainder of his presidential campaign: "We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s—a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils—a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats."16
In the general election, Jack's Republican opponent was Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower's vice president. In order to defeat Nixon, Kennedy had to convince the nation that he could go head-to-head with the experienced Republican on issues like national security and the economy and emerge victorious. Thus Kennedy proposed a series of televised debates between the two candidates; Nixon, an avid debater, accepted the offer. The first debate aired on 26 September 1960, and it was clear from the first minute that Nixon had made a mistake. Compared to Jack, who looked youthful and exuded a sense of leadership and health (though he was actually quite ill at the time), Nixon appeared sickly, callous, and altogether unexciting. Americans who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, but those who watched on TV—where Kennedy's tanned and confident appearance contrasted starkly with a sweaty and pallid-looking Nixon—gave Kennedy a decisive edge. JFK's charisma and rhetoric captivated viewers across the country; for many Americans, 26 September marked the day when Kennedy transformed from a presidential hopeful to a veritable American icon. The televised debates not only constituted a turning point in Jack's campaign, but they also signaled a change in national politics as a whole.
With Bobby Kennedy ably directing his campaign once again, Jack presented a consistent message of American progress: the United States must expand its military might, the United States must increase its economic growth, and the United States must become a fully modernized country.17 All three of these imperatives were framed in the context of the Cold War battle between communism and democracy. On election day, Jack's strategy proved successful—though just barely. On 8 November 1960, Jack won the presidential election by a mere 118,000 votes, an incredibly small margin of victory for the general election. In his inaugural address on 20 January 1961, Kennedy delivered an impassioned speech that confirmed his status not only as a great orator but also as an iconic symbol of a new era in American life. With millions watching, Jack asserted the importance of tackling the nation's unique set of challenges with energy and fervor: "only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it."18 JFK's legendary address still stands as one of the greatest in American history; even Eisenhower's speechwriter noted that Kennedy "truly inspired the excitement of the people."19
Following the election, there was much speculation over Joe Sr.'s role in the campaign and whether Jack's win might have been secured by illegal means. Essential to Kennedy's victory was the state of Illinois, and in Chicago, Jack had won by a suspiciously large margin (456,312 votes), considering his performance in the national election. Although two grand juries investigated the election in Chicago, no serious charges were ever pressed, and Nixon did not pursue a recount. Jack's victory was safe. However, more recent evidence suggests that Joe Sr. played a major role in the "stolen" election in Illinois, using his ties to the mafia and the Chicago political machine to ensure union votes, collect campaign funds from corrupt organizations, and guarantee a Kennedy landslide by any means necessary.20