PLAINS, Ga. — Inside a small Baptist church packed with out-of-state visitors wanting to hear from former President Jimmy Carter, one the most eager listeners may have been his grandson, Jason.
The message of this Sunday school lesson centered on the importance of prayer when negotiating Middle East peace and balancing the daily threat of the Cold War. As Jason Carter heads into a fierce campaign for governor this year against incumbent Republican Nathan Deal, it was a relevant message from someone whose counsel he says he values.
"He never compromised his faith," the younger Carter said afterward of the 39th president. "All of that gives me faith and belief that you could do that, that you could go through the toils and snares of politics and come out without compromising who you are."
The younger Carter, a Democratic state senator from Atlanta, has been carefully crafting his campaign with proposals to improve education and help the middle-class while rarely mentioning party affiliation as he looks to woo independent voters. And a big question has been what role his grandfather might play in the race.
Republicans are very eager to link the two, already blasting the younger Carter as an Atlanta liberal.
So far, the former president hasn't made any campaign appearances but has been hosting private fundraisers for his grandson, which have helped Jason Carter amass $1.8 million in contributions through March.
Carter added a special greeting for about a dozen people who had made the trip to south Georgia as part of a campaign fundraiser. For $12,600-a-person, the group toured the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, had dinner with the family and attended Sunday school.
"This weekend we had a very nice event. We had my grandson, who's running for governor, here with some friends. And they've had a good time, I hope, in Plains," said the 89-year-old former president.
In the end, it may be the former president's counsel that could help Carter the most as the campaign heats up ahead of November. Carter is waging a tough fight to oust Deal, who is seeking a second term. The state has voted solidly Republican in recent years.
"It's nice for me, to be going through what we're going through on a personal level in my little family, to be able to come and connect with someone who has gone through so much and who has so much to say about how to handle it," Jason Carter said after the service at the Maranatha Baptist Church, a short drive from the former president's boyhood farm.
The Carter family roots in Plains remain strong, with old campaign memorabilia on sale at the main store and Billy Carter's gas station now a museum. The Carters still live in the only home they have ever owned.
During his Sunday school teaching, which he does regularly throughout the year, Jimmy Carter spoke of how prayer has shaped his life.
"I would say the most persistent time of my life of prayer was when I was president of the United States because I felt the responsibility for almost 300 million people in my country and really for the safety and life of everyone on earth," he said. "Because it was during the intensely competitive and sometimes argumentative time of the Cold War."
Carter and his grandson have always been close, and it wouldn't be a surprise if the former president eventually makes a few campaign appearances. A recent poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 61 percent of registered voters in Georgia have a favorable opinion of the elder Carter. Despite that, there is no mention of the former president in the younger Carter's first wave of TV ads.
Meanwhile, Deal's campaign has been quick to point out statements by the former president and sought to link those views with the younger Carter. When word first came of this weekend's Plains fundraiser, Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber said at the time "every dollar raised by the grandfather wraps the grandson a little tighter in that cloak of extremism."