Nixon was given no substantial responsibilities as vice president. He presided occasionally over the Senate and chaired the President's Commission on Government Contracts, which dealt with racial discrimination by government contractors, and the Cabinet Committee on Price Stability for Economic Growth, a group with a long title but short reach in the councils of the administration. The extent of Nixon's influence on administration policy can be judged by Eisenhower's answer at a press conference when asked for an example of Nixon's contributions: "If you give me a week, I might think of one."
During Eisenhower's convalescence from a heart attack in 1955, an ileitis attack in 1956, and a stroke in 1957, Nixon handled himself with restraint. The vice president chaired nineteen cabinet sessions and twenty-six meetings of the National Security Council (NSC), but the reins of government were held by the principal White House aides. The Eisenhower-Nixon agreement on succession in the event of presidential disability served as a model for later administrations, as did Nixon's conduct in these situations.
Nixon was an integral part of the White House political operation. He campaigned for Republican members of Congress in 1954 and 1958. He criticized the Democratic-controlled Congresses. He was part of the White House operation that successfully contained Senator Joseph McCarthy attacks on the administration for being soft on Communism and helped devise the strategy that gave McCarthy enough rope to hang himself with his Senate colleagues. Nixon also participated in the negotiations with Senator John Bricker over changes in the Bricker Amendment, a proposal to place limits on the powers of the president to frame treaties and to ensure that treaties are consistent with domestic law. Eventually the amendment failed to pass Congress.
Nixon positioned himself as a moderate "Eisenhower Republican" on most issues, as well as a unifier within his party. A 1958 trip to Latin America during which he braved the wrath of street demonstrators and, a year later, his famous "Kitchen Debate" in Moscow with Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union also boosted his public standing. By late 1959 half the electorate believed he would make as good a president as Eisenhower or better, and most thought he would be better than Truman. Nineteen Gallup polls of Republican rank-and-file voters all ranked him first among contenders for the 1960 Republican presidential nomination.
Nixon won the nomination easily but ran a poor election campaign, allowing his opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to take the offensive on issues, catch up in the polls, and win the first of four televised debates, which subsequent surveys indicated helped contribute to Nixon's subsequent defeat. The recession and Eisenhower's failure to take strong measures to stimulate the economy also contributed to the results. Nixon believed that voting irregularities in Cook County caused him to lose Illinois, but he was statesmanlike enough not to contest the results. Kennedy's popular-vote total was only 118,574 more than Nixon's. In the electoral college, the results were 303–219.
Nixon returned to California and ran for governor in 1962 in a fierce and somewhat underhanded campaign that included a fraudulent "poll," supposedly conducted by a group of Democrats but actually prepared as a form of campaign literature by the Nixon camp. A court injunction put a stop to this "dirty trick," and Nixon lost the election. In a postelection news conference, Nixon concluded a series of self-pitying remarks by observing that the press would not "have Richard Nixon to kick around any more." After his defeat, Nixon moved to New York City, where he joined a large law firm and continued his activity on behalf of Republican candidates in the 1966 congressional campaign. He continued to travel extensively, sharpening his knowledge of world affairs with wide-ranging discussions among leaders of other nations. By 1967, his financial backers, organized as Richard M. Nixon Associates, were raising funds to bankroll another drive for the White House.