LEXINGTON, Ky. – Growing up with dreams of being an astronaut, Ernie Fletcher (search) launched himself on a remarkable career path -- from fighter pilot to physician to preacher to congressman -- and landed Tuesday in Kentucky's highest office.
Through it all the Republican held to his conservative Baptist beliefs and maintained a squeaky-clean image that served him well in the race to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. Paul Patton (search), tarnished by admissions of having an extramarital affair.
Fletcher's Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Ben Chandler (search), was no ally of the sitting governor, but state Republicans said voters were ready for a change after a more than 30-year Democratic lock on the governor's office.
"He is a credible messenger for the change message," state GOP chairman Ellen Williams said. "I don't know if it's that bedside manner he has a doctor, but people like him. There is a sincerity about him. He is very believable."
Fletcher, 50, grew up in Lexington, the son of conservative parents who made him go to church every Sunday. When he saw Neil Armstrong step on the moon, a wide-eyed 17-year-old became enamored with the idea of becoming an astronaut.
After graduating from the University of Kentucky with a mechanical engineering degree in 1974, Fletcher became a fighter pilot in the Air Force, a first step to going into space. Based in Alaska, his job was to intercept Soviet jets that tested U.S. defenses during the Cold War (search).
Amid military cutbacks during the Carter administration, Fletcher left the Air Force, returned to Lexington, enrolled in the UK medical school, graduated in 1984, and became a family-practice physician.
Fletcher was ordained and served as a pastor at a Baptist church in Lexington from 1989 to 1994.
Fletcher has never been shy about his Christian faith.
"You go back into what motivates you to serve, and I think faith is at the center, at least the kind of faith we practice, to serve one another, to love your neighbor as yourself, and to do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Fletcher said.
Fletcher's interest in politics began to grow in the wake of Boptrop, the federal code name for an undercover investigation in the early 1990s that sent a long list of state legislators to prison for bribery and influence peddling.
He won a seat in the state Legislature in 1994, but was gerrymandered out in a legislative redistricting. He then ran for Congress, a position he attained on his second attempt. At that point, he gave up his job as president and chief executive officer of the St. Joseph Medical Foundation in Lexington and headed for the nation's Capitol.
"I just saw government growing larger, more intrusive, more regulatory," he said during his gubernatorial campaign. "I saw a social welfare program that captured people in the cycle of dependency rather than empowering them. I wanted to be part of the solution."
On social issues, Fletcher was staunchly conservative during his three terms in Congress.
He opposed same-sex marriage, voted to allow states to decide whether to post the Ten Commandments in state buildings and schools, supported a bill to make it a crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion to evade parental-consent laws, and voted in favor of amending the Constitution to prohibit the desecration of the American flag.
Lexington attorney and longtime friend Stan Cave said it is Fletcher's honesty and integrity that convinced voters to elect a Republican governor for the first time since 1967.
"He is what you would point to and say to your kids, `That is what you need to be when you grow up,"' Cave said. "He is the real deal."
Former Gov. Louie Nunn, the last Republican to win the office, said Fletcher's victory came about in a different era.
"When I was a candidate, the state had a highly respected governor. The Democrat Party was well organized and they had all the money," Nunn said. "The situation was reversed in this campaign."