Jimmy Carter steps on to the campaign stage for his grandson — at church

And he did it by going to church.

The 90-year-old former governor already has helped Jason Carter raise millions of dollars and provided him counsel. But the Georgia native’s appearance Sunday morning at an African-American church in Albany marked his official debut on the campaign trail for his grandson’s bid to oust Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.

The elder Carter urged congregants to cast their ballots – early voting starts Monday – and accused Republicans of trying to deny them the right to vote.

“Twelve years ago in Georgia, we had a change in governmental attitude toward the Voting Rights Act, and the right of all people to vote,” said Carter, who said Republicans have “been determined to put every obstacle in the way” for blacks, the mentally disabled and the elderly to vote.

The elder Carter was referring efforts by Republicans to support voter ID requirements and oppose a decades-old law that required Georgia to clear voting changes with federal authorities. Deal and supporters say the voter ID rules prevent fraud and that the 1965 law outlived its usefulness. Opponents worry the moves could lead to disenfranchisement.

Until now Jimmy Carter has played a largely behind-the-scenes role in Jason Carter’s gubernatorial bid. At Sunday’s event at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a short trip from the former president’s hometown of Plains, the two shared the same stage, and reflected Carter’s hope that he can help his grandson appeal to black voters in the Nov. 4 election.

Carter’s campaign hopes to push black turnout to roughly 30 percent of the electorate to unseat Deal.

“He’s clearly someone I admire and has great integrity,” said Jason Carter. “You’ll see him more.”

Carter’s strategists have long planned to roll out the elder president in the race’s final weeks, but finding the right role for him has been challenging. A high-profile splash on the campaign trail earlier in the race could have distracted attention from his grandson – and offered Deal’s camp additional ammo.

“I think it’s better – this is my own opinion – when he presents himself to groups in Georgia, to be there without me and Rosalynn,” the former president said in a recent interview.

The ex-president has acknowledged he can be a double-edged sword. Polls show the majority of Georgians give him high ratings, and his famous name gave his grandson instant fund-raising heft and national attention.

But his one-term presidency remains divisive in Georgia. Republicans are eager to tie his views on hot-button issues, such as the Middle East conflict, to his grandson’s gubernatorial bid.

Ted Moye, an 85-year-old Macon County retiree, is among the one-time Democrats who Carter is trying to win back.

“I voted for Jimmy Carter, but I don’t give a dang about the grandson,” said Moye. “And he’s going to mess things up even worse than Jimmy Carter did.”

The former president inspired the opposite reaction from Nikki Price, a 40-year-old who drove from the coastal town of Kingsland to hear the Carters speak at the church.

“President Carter was a great president, and I’m definitely voting for his grandson,” she said. “He seems to have the same values of his grandfather.”

Deal, for his part, said voters aren’t going to be “unduly swayed” by the president either way.

“We can respect his opinion. But we are not a state nor a nation in which titles such as governor are inherited by virtue of your legacy,” he said at a recent campaign stop. “It is a position that’s voted on by the people of this state, and I don’t think we’re going to see that kind of influence have a significant difference.”

The former president said he’s confident he’ll help his grandson on the campaign trail far more than he may hurt him.

“I think that in balance, Georgians are still proud I was a governor who performed well and that I was a president who represented our state,” said the elder Carter. “But the only way to answer that question definitively when the returns come in in November.”

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