LAS VEGAS – Jimmy Carter stepped out of a restaurant on a recent afternoon to find a dozen or so people waiting to greet him. The 82-year-old former president flashed his famous grin and smoothly worked the crowd.
Following in his footsteps, a man with the same grin struggled for the same reception. He reached at the hand of a distracted potential voter.
"I'm Jack Carter. I'm the one who's running," he said.
Such is the blessing and the curse of the Jack Carter for Senate campaign.
The eldest son of the 39th president is in the final push of an underdog campaign for the Senate in Nevada. Carter, a millionaire investment consultant, says outrage moved him to make his first bid for public office and run against a well-funded incumbent Republican, Sen. John Ensign.
Carter's top campaign targets have been the Bush administration's policies on war and security. His pitch to voters has been a promise of change and an independent voice. His greatest political asset is a famous father who sometimes steals the spotlight.
"I've got a very good name." Carter, 59, said while lunching with his father. "I'll admit it. I don't have any problem with that."
Experts agree the perks of presidential lineage are undeniable. Name recognition and access to a national network of contributors set Carter's campaign apart. No Democrat challenged Carter in the primary — even though he'd never run for office and had lived in the state less than four years.
"Anybody who was president of the United States by definition has coattails," said Dan Hart, a Las Vegas Democratic operative. "Jack Carter is getting more attention than anybody else would have."
In Nevada, riding Jimmy Carter's coattails wouldn't necessarily take you far. In Carter's presidential races, he lost the state by 5 percentage points in 1976 and 36 percentage points in 1980.
Nevadans twice voted for another former first son, President George W. Bush. Still, only 39 percent now approve of the president's job performance, according to a September newspaper poll. The same poll found Jack Carter trailing Ensign by about 23 percentage points, but more recent surveys have found Carter behind by about 10 percentage points.
Carter has leaned heavily on his father, who draws media coverage like a magnet, to make up for a campaign fund that's dwarfed by his opponent's. Ensign has outraised Carter by more than $4 million, at last reporting.
Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, attended the campaign launch, and have been regular visitors since. When Jack Carter was hospitalized with colitis, his dad handled campaign events in his stead. Commercials for the low-income housing project supported by the former president, Habitat for Humanity, run during local political talk shows.
Hart says there are few negatives associated with Jimmy Carter. But others note potential pitfalls.
"There are limits on the value of campaigning with the famous father," said Andrew Polsky, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York who has studied political families. "The next generation has to step out of the shadows at some point and be his own man or her own woman. They don't want to be overshadowed by the better known, more famous parent."
Jack said he never sought his father's advice before getting into the race. Since then, he said, he hasn't sought much counsel from the local political establishment.
"I never did see Jack as a future political candidate," his father said. "I don't think Jack is naturally fascinated with politics as a subject. But neither am I, by the way."
Jack Carter has tried to reach out to Nevada voters who the Carters say 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry ignored. He talks openly about his Baptist faith, and appeared last weekend with his father at a black church in Las Vegas.
Jack, who grew up in Plains, Ga., claims a shared heritage with rural Nevadans. "I am one of them because I'm from a small town," he said. "And when I do go out into those small towns out there those people are the same I grew up with."
Ensign disagrees, and his ads zoom in on a picture of a carpet bag to underscore the point. Ensign, a veterinarian and the son of a casino executive, grew up in Nevada and served two terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2000.
In debates, he has noted Carter relies on substantial financial support from outside Nevada — 84 percent, by the senator's count.
"How can you say you want to be Nevada's voice in Washington when almost all of your supporters are from out of state?" Ensign said.
At times, Carter has appeared out of his element on Nevada turf. On the stump, he has little to say about water issues and the fight against a proposed nuclear waste storage dump at Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las Vegas.
His preferred approach is to pound the president, and by association Ensign, on the war in Iraq. Ensign, like many Republicans, has begun drawing distinctions between himself and the administration.
Hart said Carter's chances of winning depend on whether the predicted Democratic surge materializes on Election Day. "Carter would need to benefit from that," Hart said.
Anything is possible, the former president said, recalling his own days as a political unknown.
"Remember, Rosalynn would go out and tell people to 'Vote for Jimmy,' and they'd come back and say, 'Jimmy who?'"