ALBANY, Ga. — It's been more than four decades since Jimmy Carter campaigned across Georgia and asked voters to make him governor.
His winning race set the stage for his election as president in 1976.
Carter's just turned 90, but he was out campaigning on Sunday for his grandson Jason, a Democratic state senator and lawyer who's challenging the Republican governor, Nathan Deal, on Nov. 4, in a close race.
The former president and his grandson spoke during a church service open to the public in south Georgia, a key area for Jason Carter as he looks to woo former Democrats back to a party that many left more than a decade ago. The visit to Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Albany was part of a campaign push ahead of early voting, which begins Monday.
Jimmy Carter spoke of the struggle for blacks to obtain the right to vote and praised his grandson, a state senator and lawyer from Atlanta, for fighting against the state's voter ID law. The former president said Republicans are for limiting, not expanding, voter access.
"He's led the charge," the former president said of his grandson's work in the courtroom to challenge the state law. "Everyone here and everyone you can contact should join with . Jason when the time comes this year to make Martin Luther King's dream come true."
Polls suggest a tight race between Carter and Deal, and Democrats see both the governor's race and a fierce battle for the state's open U.S. Senate seat as critical to laying the foundation for Georgia to become a presidential swing state in 2016.
Up until this point, the elder Carter had largely stayed behind the scenes, headlining private fundraisers and offering counsel to his grandson's campaign. But in the final weeks, he is taking on a more prominent role.
Among those in the crowd was Hildry Branch, a retired educator from Albany, who brought her family to hear the former president and who appreciated his support for his grandson. A lifelong Democrat, Branch said she planned to vote for the younger Carter.
"I like what he's said about education," she said. "All children need to be educated. That's one thing no one can take from you."
During his remarks, Jason Carter talked about how his grandfather had inspired him, and what prompted him to run for governor.
"He was born in a little country town in south Georgia," he said of his grandfather. "He didn't have a lot in his life. But if one child in rural Georgia can grow up to do the things he has done, then we owe it to every child to educate them and give them opportunity."
The battle for voters outside of Atlanta, particularly in south and middle Georgia, will be key in both the races for governor and Senate. Georgia hasn't backed a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1992, and Republicans have made steady gains across the state in the years since.
But the state's demographics have been changing, with a growing minority population and an increase in people moving into Georgia from other states.
Meanwhile, Democrats have launched a targeted effort this year to register some of the estimated 800,000 black, Latinos and Asians already living in the state who have yet to engage in the political process.
Republicans have been eager to link Jason Carter to the elder Carter's policies, portraying him as a liberal Atlanta Democrat who can't be trusted not to raise taxes.
Jason Carter has criticized Deal for not doing enough to fund education and help the state's middle class. Deal, a former congressman, has argued his policies have helped state revenues and jobs increase despite tough economic times while protecting education from budget cuts.
Deal said last week that he expected the former president would take a more public role in the campaign, adding he didn't think it would persuade voters.
"I respect President Carter, and if I were a grandfather I'd probably want to support my grandson too," Deal said. "But we are not a state nor a nation in which titles such as governor are inherited by virtue of your legacy."
Associated Press writer Kathleen Foody in Marietta, Georgia, contributed to this report. Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Christina.