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ATLANTA – The grandson of former President Jimmy Carter will challenge Gov. Nathan Deal next year in a move that catapults the gubernatorial contest into the national spotlight and tests whether Georgia’s changing demographics can loosen the Republican Party’s 12-year grip on the state’s highest office.

The decision by State Sen. Jason Carter, which he announced Wednesday in an exclusive interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is another step along the trail forged by his famous grandfather, who was elected to the State Senate and then the Governor’s Mansion before winning the presidency in 1976.

“We can’t wait as a state,” said Jason Carter. “The bottom line is we can’t afford four more years of an economy that’s not working for the middle class and an education system that’s underfunded. It’s not about politics. It’s about making sure we can get the state that we need.”

Carter, 38, pitches himself as a fiscal conservative who will revamp an education funding system he derides as a “shell game” and restore trust in the government.

“We want a Georgia that’s at its best,” Carter said, “and Georgia at its best invests in education, it doesn’t cut billions out of the classrooms, it has an economy that works for the middle class, and it always has an honest government.”

Carter faces the task of convincing voters who have elected Republicans to every statewide office that Democrats are worthy of a return to power. He’ll be forced to confront questions about whether it’s too soon for a gubernatorial bid in a state that gave Mitt Romney a resounding victory just last year. And he must try to keep pace with Deal, who has hit the fundraising circuit to boost the $1.1 million he had in his campaign coffers in July.

Carter’s political career began in 2009 when he announced a bid to succeed state Sen. David Adelman, who was tapped to be the U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

He won in a four-way race in 2010 to claim a spot in the Senate, and he quickly became one of his party’s most outspoken leaders on its top legislative priorities. He advocated for an income cap for the HOPE scholarship that would grant full tuition to needier students, and he challenged GOP efforts to undo legislation aimed at protecting minority voters.

Whether his grandfather will be an asset or liability in the eyes of Georgians remains unknown. The elder Carter canvassed door-to-door with his grandson days before the 2010 election, and he’s popular among many Georgia Democrats.

There’s a reason Democrats like Carter are considering a run down the road.

About 44 percent of Georgia residents are now minorities – up 7 points in the past decade – and nonwhites, who often cast Democratic ballots, could outnumber whites here by 2020.

Carter, the son of Jack and Julia Carter, is married and has two children.