By Alistair Bell
ATLANTA (Reuters) - While a Bush and a Clinton consider whether to run for the White House in 2016, in Georgia another U.S. presidential surname from decades past is already on a ballot.
Blessed with his forebear's famous smile and mellow manner, state Senator Jason Carter is trying to emulate grandfather Jimmy in November by winning election as governor.
Unlike the former president, who has moved further to the left with age, Jason, 38, is carving out room on the right as he campaigns as a Democrat against an incumbent in a conservative state. Polls show a tight race.
In March he voted for legislation known to its detractors as the “guns everywhere law,” which the National Rifle Association boasts is the most comprehensive of its type ever passed by a state. The law, which takes effect in July, makes it easier for Georgians to carry guns in bars, churches and airports.
Carter courted another controversy last month when he said Georgia's drivers had the right to license plates that display the Confederate flag.
Jason's support for the death penalty also puts him at odds with his grandfather, a longtime opponent.
“Are there issues that he and I disagree on? Of course there are. But those issues are not as important as the fact that he is my grandfather and I love him,” Jason said after a recent campaign event.
To defeat Republican Governor Nathan Deal, Carter needs to extend his appeal beyond his base of liberal whites, African-Americans and Hispanics in the Atlanta area. And among conservatives in the state's small towns, gun rights are sacrosanct.
“It is conventional wisdom among local legislators going back for two decades that you don't oppose the NRA (in those areas),” said Nan Orrock, a Democratic state senator.
In the town of Kennesaw, a 1982 law that makes it mandatory for all households to maintain a gun and ammunition is still on the books.
One local, Dent “Wildman” Myers, carries a pistol in a holster as he potters about his Civil War surplus store, which sells Confederate memorabilia and right-wing writings. A mannequin dressed in a Ku Klux Klan hood and draped in a noose stands in the corner.
Jarring as those remnants of the South's past are, Kennesaw has become a diverse, vibrant town over the past 15 years, little different from the encroaching Atlanta metro area, with new shopping malls and expensive ethnic restaurants. Many residents work at United Parcel Service's headquarters some 20 miles away or the Lockheed aircraft plant in nearby Marietta.
Resident Joyce Cox, who runs a hospice business with her husband, is the sort of middle-of-the-road voter Carter hopes to win over. But she puts her chances of voting for him at “slim to none.”
The recipient of a semi-automatic rifle for Christmas in 2012, Cox has considered voting Democrat. But since Carter’s stance on guns is little different from that of his rival, she is focused on the Democrats' business record and fears Carter will favor more taxes and regulations.
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Carter says his campaign is about Deal's underfunding of education and his refusal to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income Georgians, but the gun law has overshadowed early campaigning.
Carter helped water down the gun bill by opposing an effort to allow arms on college campuses and by insisting that churches that want worshippers to bring weapons to services must explicitly inform authorities.
The NRA gives Carter a high rating, 92 percent, as he has long been pro-gun.
“My record is completely consistent on guns throughout my
time at the state senate,” he said. “You can look at the history of our state and what people believe, I think my views on this are consistent with the majority of people in our state.”
The younger Carter has learned a lesson that other Democrats are heeding this year: To win in the South, you may need to take positions more associated with Republicans.
In Louisiana, Senator Mary Landrieu is a champion of the Keystone pipeline. Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, a critic of the Obama administration's coal policy, is also a member of the pack of conservative Southern Democrats.
Emory University political scientist Merle Black sees similarities between Carter's campaign and his grandfather’s strategy 44 years ago.
“He is trying to recreate the kind of coalition that elected his grandfather governor of Georgia back in 1970,” Black said.
Then, Jimmy Carter sought to win over white voters wary of integration. He kept campaign appearances with black groups to a minimum and sought the endorsement of well-known segregationists.
After winning, he surprised many in his inaugural address by calling for an end to segregation.
Jimmy Carter's notoriety among Republicans as a weak liberal is one that Jason will want to distance himself from. But the former president is still popular in his home state as a man of integrity and Christian faith. He is also useful as a fundraiser among national Democrats.
The Jason Carter campaign will host a weekend in June in his grandfather's hometown of Plains, where donors can spend time with Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, for $20,000 a couple.
“Will I call him for advice? Of course. Will he participate in the campaign? Absolutely. But the campaign is going to be about the future of our state... and not about my grandparents.”
(Editing by Douglas Royalty)