ATLANTA — Nathan Deal's campaign for governor is not about glamour.
Recently, his campaign SUV stopped outside Cartersville at Bartow Precast, a small company that makes concrete septic tanks, grease traps and storm drain enclosures.
Deal met the company's president, Michael Tidwell, and learned about his struggles to keep going during the recession — without laying off employees.
Standing next to huge concrete blocks, Deal made a short video with Tidwell as part of a "Real People, Real Jobs" series he posts on his website.
"I believe Georgians need a governor that is as solid as this piece of concrete," Deal said, pounding his fist.
The moment was awkward but captured what Deal is trying to offer Georgians: nothing flashy, but dependable.
Some polls show Deal gathering support.
A Rasmussen poll of likely Georgia voters released in May found Deal fared the best of any Republican against Roy Barnes, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who has raised the most money. The poll reported three GOP candidates leading Barnes, but Deal led by the largest margin, 47 to 40 percent.
North Georgia voters have elected Deal nine times, each by a wide margin, in what has become one of the region's most conservative congressional districts. The American Conservative Union in 2009 gave Deal a 100 percent rating. He voted against President George W. Bush's bank bailout and President Barack Obama's stimulus package. Before he resigned this spring, Deal's last official act was to vote against Obama's health care overhaul. His issue this campaign is jobs, and he sees the answer as low corporate taxes and less government red tape.
"You don't have to guess where I stand on issues," Deal said. "You can go look at my voting record."
Whatever Deal's plans for state prosperity, his personal finances have been troubled of late.
Deal — who became a multimillionaire while in Congress — is today part-owner of a real estate and rental business as well as an aviation company. He owns half of Gainesville Salvage and Disposal, a car salvage business that for years had an agreement to handle damaged vehicles in north Georgia. Deal also became a principal investor in a store owned by his daughter and her husband.
Deal has seen his property values and rental income plummet during the recession, but the last two investments have caused him the most headaches. In 2009, the AJC reported Deal's congressional staff met with state officials three times in 2008 and 2009 to discuss changes in salvaged car inspections. The changes would have opened up competition for Deal's business, which was one of only a handful that had lucrative agreements with the state. A congressional ethics office blasted Deal, saying he "took active steps to preserve a purely state program, one that had generated financial benefit for Rep. Deal and his business partner." Because Deal left office, congressional investigators took no further action.
Deal bristles when the matter is raised. He said he was only concerned with how the program's changes would affect car safety, not his own finances. The business no longer participates in the program.
In 2008, Deal invested in a sporting goods business started by a daughter and her husband. The business failed, and now Deal carries $2.1 million in related debts, records show.
But as the July 20 GOP primary looms, Deal's biggest challenge is standing out amid other candidates with conservative pedigrees, flashier campaigns and louder voices.
Will Deal's low-key approach get lost in the campaign cacophony?
Supporters say no.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a GOP congressman from north Georgia, is a strong Deal supporter.
"Nathan is more calm, more precisioned," he said. "He's not trying to woo anybody with any type of craziness."
What friends call calm, critics call disengaged.
McCracken Poston, who lost a congressional race to Deal in 1996, said Deal's many years in Congress have been uneventful and unproductive.
"I didn't hear a lot from him and didn't hear a lot about him," said Poston, now a defense attorney in Deal's district. "I don't think he ever stepped out of his party's marching orders, that I could tell."
By "his party," McCracken, a Democrat, meant the Republican Party, to which Deal has been faithful since 1995. Deal and party loyalty make an interesting story.
Deal, a lifelong Georgian, began his political career in the 1970s as a Democrat, like most Southerners at the time. From 1981 to 1993, he served in the Georgia Senate, rising to become the chamber's second in command. In 1992, he was elected to Congress.
But momentous changes took place soon after he arrived in Washington. With the 1994 midterm elections, Republicans took control of the House. Newt Gingrich of Marietta became speaker.
In 1995, Deal switched parties. "This is a matter of principle, not politics," he said at the time.
Democrats called him disloyal. They backed Poston in 1996, but Deal won handily. Thereafter, Deal rose to become a senior if not top member of the House. For years he headed a powerful health care subcommittee. In almost two decades in Congress, he never led a full committee. Many donors to his campaigns and leadership political action committee were pharmaceutical and health care companies.
Asked about legislation Deal sponsored, his campaign cited his role in 2005 negotiations that reduced entitlement programs by billions of dollars. Deal pushed for wording that required Medicaid recipients to show valid identification, stopping illegal immigrants from getting care.
Though involved in state politics since the 1980s, Deal has been little-known outside his district. Now seeking the state's highest office, he will have to hit the stump hard to win.
At a recent Rotary luncheon in Cartersville, Deal spoke about how he wants to cut the corporate tax by one-third. He wants a tough illegal immigration bill, similar to one recently passed in Arizona that authorizes local police to arrest immigrants without documentation. He wants tighter borders.
Deal said the state's financial crisis demands the next governor shrink government. But when pressed, he declined to specify what he would cut.
"I'll have to look over the books when I get in there," he said.
As people left the luncheon, most said they hadn't made up their minds yet.