ATHENS, Ga. -- There was a lot going on in the opening moments of a recent stump speech by former President Jimmy Carter's grandson, who is running for governor here.
"When you think of being governor of Georgia, there are some names that come to mind," Jason Carter said as he spoke to a few hundred Democrats at a Clark County dinner last week.
But the younger Carter didn't mention the former president, Georgia's 76th governor. Instead, he mentioned four others, numbers 66, 69, 70 and 74.
"There are governors that have towered over our politics: Richard Russell, Ellis Arnall," Carter says. "Herman Talmadge was a fixture in our politics for many years. Carl Sanders was one of our greatest governors. Whatever you think about them, they were titans of our politics. And they were 32, 35, 35 and 37 when they got elected governor."
"I'll be 39 this year and I'm starting to feel old," Carter said, eliciting laughter.
Carter is taking on the incumbent Republican governor, Nathan Deal, who is 71, so he likely felt some need to rebuff critics of his younger age, though Carter has been a state senator since 2010. But he also used the point to arrive at the family legacy, in a surprising way.
"My grandfather's 89 years old," he said, "and I appreciate having not been introduced as Jimmy Carter's grandson. I stand on my own two feet."
He went on to talk about his pride in his family name, but the tone of defensiveness was striking. There was a similar edge the next day over lunch, when Carter responded to whether his grandfather would campaign for him.
"One thing that's important for everybody to know and understand, and that I know, is he's not on the ballot. The question is not about Jimmy Carter, it's about Jason Carter," Carter said over a plate of Fox Bros. barbecue, one of his favorite spots in Atlanta.
The distancing was paired with sincere praise, as it had been the night before. "My grandfather has done so much with what he has that he is a hero of mine, in terms of what he has accomplished ... how he has lived his life," Carter said. "That legacy is a part of who I am."
But Carter's sensitivity to his last name underlines the complex history and feelings associated with it. On one hand, there would seem to be plenty of upside for Carter to seize on. After all, former President Jimmy Carter's approval rating in most surveys is high enough, around 60 percent. Georgia is thought of as a potential swing state in 2016 because its population has exploded with younger, non-white transplants, and most of new Georgia knows the former president mainly for his humanitarian and charity work after leaving office.
It would seem that a gubernatorial run by his grandson -- a youthful, charismatic political figure and married father of two young boys -- would be an opportunity to take Carter's reputation for goodness and infuse it with a key ingredient it has been seen to lack: a sense of strength.
Carter has had to distance himself from policy positions taken by his grandfather that are to the left of where he wants to be. Last fall he disagreed publicly with former President Jimmy Carter's call for an end to the use of the death penalty in Georgia's criminal justice system. But the downside of his grandfather's legacy has never had all that much to do with being liberal. The former president was rejected by much of the Democratic party during his first term for being too conservative. That's why Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) challenged him in the 1980 Democratic primary.
The shadow over Jimmy Carter has more to do with perceptions of failure and weakness, and with the memory of a bad time in the country. He was unable to free the 53 Americans held hostage in Iran for over a year; there was also double-digit inflation and skyrocketing energy prices that created long gas lines in 1979. After Carter lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, much of the political establishment sneered at him as he returned home to Georgia.
Yet many Georgians have more charitable feelings toward the former president. One woman at the Clark County dinner, a parasitologist named Lorraine Fuller, said she has always supported Democrats and thinks highly of the Jimmy Carter administration. He was "a victim of circumstances," she said. Still, she acknowledged, "most think he was pretty ineffectual."
For Jason Carter's purposes, his grandfather's history could resonate negatively only with a shrinking minority of voters, as the new Georgia takes shape. However, he is actively seeking the support of many of these traditional voters, in south Georgia and in the voter-rich suburbs north of downtown Atlanta, where about half the state's voters now live. It's where the election will be won or lost. The state's electoral math does not yet get Carter over 50 percent just with new Georgia's support; he still needs a good chunk of votes from old Georgia.
Most observers in Georgia think that even if Carter narrowly loses to Deal, the current governor, this fall, he will be primed to win the governorship in 2018 and will be a leader of the state's Democratic party as it makes its way back from dysfunction and irrelevance.
And so Carter's candidacy offers a shot at revival, not only for his grandfather's legacy but also for a state party beset by scandal and neglect for years. Carter's candidacy is paired with that of Michelle Nunn, the 47-year-old daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn (D), who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
The enthusiasm on the left generated by the sight of two young, well-spoken Democrats with historical names is fuel for an explosion of fundraising and community building. The Carter and Nunn campaigns are engines that can attract volunteers and supporters to build a statewide, grassroots infrastructure with methods pioneered and honed by the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns.
But therein lies the clearest fault line for Carter. Much of the energy in the Democratic party is on its left flank. And Georgia is a conservative state. Carter wants to raise national money, and excite the grassroots in Georgia, but he cannot go so far to the left that he alienates large swaths of the electorate in his state. His strategy so far is to try to make education his signature issue and to downplay social issues like abortion and gay marriage, talking instead about "a different discussion of what it means to be a Christian in our politics."
"The most divisive issues are not what define our religion. I think the Habitat for Humanity voters who want to live out their faith in ways that make sense I think will give me a second look regardless and sort of because we're going to talk about social issues and moral obligations that go beyond just these divisive issues that are out there," Carter said.
Because of a Republican-controlled state legislature, Carter, who is pro-choice and supports gay marriage, said that those issues have little bearing on his race. "When I'm governor, we're not going to change the abortion laws in Georgia," he said.
When asked whether the Democratic party went too far left by removing language from its 2012 convention platform that said abortion should be "rare," Carter said he had "no idea that that happened" but expressed disagreement with the platform. "I can't imagine people saying that they don't want to minimize in every way the number of abortions," he said.
Deal's campaign emphasized the governor's work on education and his attempts to reform racial disparities in criminal sentencing. But Deal's greatest assets, multiple Georgia insiders said, are his incumbency in a state where the governorship still exercises significant control over local politics through a patronage system, and his apparent immunity to news coverage of ethics probes. Yet, the governor was badly hurt by the anger of many in the Atlanta metro area over his slow response to a February snow and ice storm that stranded thousands of motorists and even school children on the interstates overnight. Recent polls have shown the race tightening. But most Georgia political observers still give Deal a leg up.
But that's a far cry from Deal being an inevitability, which is how many viewed the race just a few months ago. And if Carter were to win, that would simply speed up a process that has already begun: the Carter name, and the Democratic party in Georgia, are back.
Read HuffPost's interview with Jason Carter here.
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