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A presidential son explores venture into national politics

John Carter eyes Nev. Senate seat

LAS VEGAS -- The Kennedys. The Bushes. The Clintons. And now, the Carters?

As if it didn't already seem like the '70s had returned -- a war raging abroad, the Rolling Stones scaling the pop charts, and a crisis at the gas pumps -- a Carter is preparing a run for national office.

John William ''Jack" Carter, 58, the eldest son of President Jimmy Carter, is plotting a campaign against US Senator John Ensign, a Republican first-termer running for reelection next year.

The presidential son, who moved to Las Vegas in 2003 and campaigned for John F. Kerry last year, said he's about to embark on a ''listening tour" of Nevada to find out ''if my fellow citizens feel the same way about me as I feel about them."

Carter, an equities investor who lives with his wife in fast-growing northwest Las Vegas, said he's been contemplating a bid against Ensign for a while. The Bush administration's ''bungled" response to Hurricane Katrina caused him to take a more serious look at running.

''I've been building up to this because I don't like the way this country has been run," Carter said. ''Then, when Katrina hit and Bush said it's going to cost $200 billion to rebuild New Orleans but don't worry, we're not going to raise taxes nor are we going to cut back on the pork in federal budget, the thing that came to my mind was 'responsibility.' These guys don't have it."

Ensign spokesman Jack Finn said the senator doesn't know much about Carter and couldn't comment on a possible opponent. Ensign told a local journalist that he didn't know that President Carter had any sons. His three adult sons largely stayed out of the spotlight during his term, leaving their pigtailed little sister, Amy, as Jimmy and Rosalyn's most famous child.

Still, the possible bid by a candidate with a famous last name has generated enthusiasm among Nevada Democrats -- as well as some relief in a party struggling to find a viable prospect to take on Ensign. Next year is the first time in more than a century that all six statewide constitutional offices will be open, drawing Democrats into those races instead of challenging a well-heeled incumbent for the US Senate seat.

''The problem for that particular race has been that we have momentum for the races for the state's constitutional offices, so some people have wanted to focus more energy on those races," said Kirsten Searer, spokeswoman for the Nevada Democratic Party. ''But when Jack Carter started floating his name, people got excited. I think once people see more about Jack Carter, they'll see he's more than a celebrity."

Still, Carter said he's happy to capitalize on his connections to his father, who would campaign for him in Nevada if he runs. Observers say it's what makes him a serious candidate, giving him a potentially national fund-raising base to do battle against a well-financed incumbent.

''He's got a political name and is from a political family," said Dan Hart, a Democratic strategist in Las Vegas. Yet the Carter name also comes with baggage. Jimmy Carter lost the Silver State handily in 1976 and 1980, and Nevada has veered even more Republican since. Jack Carter, who sits on one of the boards of his father's Carter Center, a humanitarian think tank, defended the 39th president in an interview, saying that he did an ''excellent job."

''Of course that will be a factor," Erin Neff, a political writer and columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said of Carter's lineage. ''When you think of Jimmy Carter to this day, you still think of long gas lines and the guy who was in office before the great Reagan revolution. The Jimmy Carter legacy is really lost here."

Neff said it remains to be seen how helpful the state's senior senator and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid would be to a candidate seeking to unseat Ensign, with whom he has such a strong working relationship and friendship that a local pundit regularly mocks the pair as ''Harry Ensign."

Yet Reid has said he'd support any Democrat against Ensign, and Carter said he's received encouragement from Reid's staff in two recent meetings. He has also met with US Representative Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, who offered her full support.

Berkley doubts that the Carter legacy will have much of an impact on the race, noting that the former president is highly regarded for his Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian efforts since losing the presidency to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Jack Carter insists that he hasn't made up his mind about running and declined to catalog his stances on a list of issues until he formally announces within the next few months. Still, he has already drawn media attention. Last week the Reno Gazette-Journal reported that Carter confirmed that he was discharged from the Navy in 1970 after one tour of duty in Vietnam because he admitted using marijuana and LSD.

The undeclared candidate sounds a lot like a committed one.

''I didn't just jump into this because I felt compelled that it was up to me to do it," he said. ''If I didn't think I had a decent chance of winning, I wouldn't do it. And having name recognition is part of that."

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