Top grades. Student body president. Debate champion. Law school. Military record. A nearly three-decade-long career in the state Legislature and Congress.
"We all figured in, oh, the 5th or 6th grade that Nathan was going to be governor," said his childhood friend Tommy Walker of Sandersville. "He was just that way, the class leader with the good grades. It's like it was in his DNA."
Deal beat former Secretary of State Karen Handel this August in a GOP runoff and now faces Democratic opponent and former governor Roy Barnes. Since that win, Deal's record in politics been overshadowed by looming financial problems, including a need to repay a $2 million debt from a failed store run by his daughter and son-in-law.
Throughout his career, Deal, 68, has been the kind of cautious candidate who relies on a steady string of hits to score runs, rather than swinging for the fences. He casts himself as a proven leader and a consensus builder.
The former lawmaker hails from one of the more conservative districts in the country, and it shows. Last year, he called on President Barack Obama to produce his birth certificate, although he said that he was simply passing along concerns from his constituents and now believes the matter is settled.
Deal also pushed for an end to automatic citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born in this country. And he has advocated for eliminating the federal income tax in favor of a consumption tax, or so-called fair tax.
He called himself the true conservative in the GOP primary, and Republicans apparently agreed. He beat Handel despite her backing from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Then came a series of financial stumbles.
Deal and his wife face a Feb. 1 deadline to repay $2.3 million in loans that they guaranteed for their daughter and son-in-law's failed store. Deal has tried to sell his Gainesville home along with other property and recently said he will liquidate a retirement account to help repay his debts.
He also amended his financial disclosure forms after facing questions from AP about why he did not disclose $2.85 million in business loans. Government watchdog groups said those liabilities should have been disclosed. Deal called the omission an oversight.
He tries to strike an everyman tone when talking about money woes.
"I am real. I'm like other Georgians. I face these same challenges. Like other Georgians, we're going to be responsible," Deal said at a hastily called news conference this month to discuss his finances. "We're going to stand by our children."
First elected to the U.S. House as a Democrat in 1992, Deal has a long record on Capitol Hill. In 2005, he helped slash some $20 billion from the federal budget as part of the deficit reduction act. It's a figure, aides quickly note, that is larger than the current budget of Georgia.
Deal's decision to become a Republican in 1995 helped Republicans expand their power in Congress. It earned Deal the loyalty of then-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has endorsed Deal in the governor's race as "a solid conservative with a solid record."
Democrats couldn't unseat Deal after his party switch. He easily won re-election seven more times.
Tough proposals to crack down on illegal immigration have been the centerpiece of his tenure. He's backed using soldiers at the border to enforce drug and immigration laws. Deal also supported a federal database meant to keep illegal immigrants out of the workforce.
Deal said his immigration focus is the result of concerns bubbling up from his north Georgia district, where immigrants have arrived in large numbers to work at textile mills. He supports an Arizona-style anti-illegal immigration law in Georgia.
"You either believe that the law has meaning and should be enforced, or you don't," Deal said in an interview. "And if you don't think the law is appropriate, we have perfectly legitimate ways of changing the law. But to simply ignore it makes the problem worse."
Before his financial trouble was disclosed, it was Deal's auto salvage business in Gainesville that put him on the defensive, forcing him to answer questions about his ethics.
Earlier this year, the Office of Congressional Ethics found Deal may have violated House ethics rules by using his position to lobby state officials on behalf of the auto salvage company, which at the time had a lucrative state contract.
The office recommended the House Committee on Standards investigate. Before the panel could decide whether to take up the matter, Deal resigned from Congress to run for governor.
The state's revenue commissioner received a federal grand jury subpoena related to his 2009 meeting with Deal over a state program affecting Deal's company. Deal has denied any wrongdoing, saying he has not be told he is the target of the investigation.
Friends say Deal has always been a steady, straight arrow, even as the upheaval of the 1960s churned around him during his college years. At Mercer University, Deal completed his undergraduate and law degrees in just six years. He signed up for ROTC and quickly became a cadet commander. Serious and studious, Deal won honors and was student body president.
"You would never have found Nathan down at the beer tavern on Friday afternoon," said Carl Rollins, of Dalton, a friend at the time who was stationed with Deal at Fort Gordon.
Deal became a commissioned captain in the U.S. Army and, as a member of the JAG Corps, he taught law to military police. With the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Deal's mission changed and he began training national guard troops who were being tapped to keep order on the home front.
By the 1970s, Deal was working in a small Gainesville law office, handling real estate closings, wills, estates and criminal cases. He married his wife, Sandra - a teacher he met on a blind date - and they went on to have three daughters and a son.
In 1980, he won a state Senate seat, rising to become speaker pro tempore.
He served in elected office until he stepped down from Congress in March - just after voting against the Democratic-backed health reform law.
Deal once pledged to serve six terms and retire in 2004 but changed his mind, arguing the district would benefit from his experience - a theme he frequently returns to on the campaign trail.
"Life experiences are what people look at," said Deal, who quickly ticked off his resume as a prosecutor, parent, judge, deacon and lawmaker. "I think all of those coupled together, I think, reach the one conclusion - that is, I'm qualified."