ATLANTA — The race for governor began to take shape Wednesday as Republican Gov. Nathan Deal touted his first-term accomplishments while Democratic challenger Jason Carter offered his vision for the state in separate interviews with The Associated Press.
Deal, who is seeking a second term, described his record as one of job creation and key reforms in the areas of criminal justice, taxes and education. He argued he has the experience needed to tackle tough problems such as the state's outdated funding formula for K-12 education and a long list of critical transportation projects.
"The main difference is that I have a record to run on," Deal said in an interview at his campaign office downtown. "I have shown positive leadership that has produced results, and I think people judge those in elected office by fulfilling their promises, and I believe I have done that."
Carter, a state senator and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, challenged that record. He argued that the governor has failed in four years to improve the lives of middle-class Georgians and has instead jeopardized the state's future by underfunding education.
"What we have seen over the last several years in my view and the view of a huge number of people, both Democrats and Republicans, is a failure to put forward real ideas to solve real problems," said Carter in an interview at his campaign office north of downtown.
The race has already garnered national attention, and both men have been raising large sums of money. Deal had $3.9 million in cash at the end of March, the last reporting period, while Carter had $1.6 million. Deal has already been airing TV ads promoting his record, while Carter is likely to start soon.
Deal said he took office when the state was still dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession and made it a priority to create jobs. He said he worked with the General Assembly on a tax reform package in 2012 to help agriculture and manufacturing, two of the state's leading industries, while juggling other pressing issues including a HOPE scholarship program facing a financial crisis.
"You have to have the courage to make hard decisions. You can't run from them," Deal said. "You have to have the courage to take on issues that may at first blush appear to be politically unpopular like criminal justice reform."
He noted criminal justice reforms have already produced millions in savings in two years, while also helping nonviolent offenders turn their lives around. He also argued voters should be wary of Carter's promises.
"Political promises don't matter unless they are promises that can be fulfilled," Deal said. "I have made promises that have mattered, and they have been fulfilled."
Carter said he welcomes a debate about Georgia's future, arguing his key issues are education and growing the economy. Carter wants to require lawmakers to fund education first in the budget-making process, and acknowledges that could mean cuts in other areas of state government.
"You have to be willing to make tough budgeting choices, period," Carter said. "When you pretend that by cutting education and undermining the system you are saving money, it's not real. You are, in fact, eating your seed corn and next year are going to starve."
He said Deal has created much of the problems he claims credit for fixing, including changes to the HOPE program that initially raised the qualifying grade-point average for technical college students and a reduction of days offered in pre-K.
"It's putting a Band-Aid on a body he severely injured," Carter said.
Deal has said the state was able to restore those HOPE cuts after revenues improved, which also allowed him to increase K-12 spending by an additional $547 million next fiscal year.
Both Carter and Deal agree that an overhaul is needed of the state's education funding formula, which hasn't been updated since 1985. The two also saw reasons for hope in the results of Tuesday's primary. Deal noted he received almost as many votes as Carter and Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn combined, arguing that means Georgia remains a strongly Republican state. Carter, who ran unopposed, noted that one in four GOP primary voters cast a ballot against Deal and said he would work to gain their support.
A wild card in the race could be Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. The Democratic mayor has been a Deal ally and is seen as aspiring to the top job himself, preferably in 2018 when Deal would be term-limited.
Reed campaigned Wednesday with Nunn and, without prompting from reporters, said her race should be the party's priority in the fall.
"I think many times you fight two wars you lose two wars," he said. "I'm going to be calling Sen. Carter today to congratulate him, but my time and energy is going to be spent on Michelle Nunn's campaign because I think she can win, and it's my priority to keep a Democratic U.S. Senate."
Carter's campaign released a statement in response: "''Jason has a good working relationship with Mayor Reed, and looks forward to continuing that relationship in the campaign and when he's elected governor."
Associated Press reporter Bill Barrow contributed to this report.