AUSTIN — Call it a leadership test in real time.
Gov. Rick Perry left the presidential campaign trail this week to dash back to Texas, where wildfires have devoured more than 1,000 homes in barely seven days.
"Not paying attention to politics right now" is how the conservative Republican explained it after he ditched a high-profile campaign appearance in early-voting South Carolina to tend to his duties as governor. He was poised to leave the state for the first time since to attend a Wednesday night debate in California, which was set to be his first on the national stage.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the candidate plans to attend the debate and that some of the campaign's key staff already is in California, where they have announced that the governor won't deviate from planned public appearances or private fundraising efforts. But Perry himself has been less committal.
"I'm substantially more concerned about making sure Texans are being taken care of," he said Tuesday after viewing by helicopter a fire-ravaged neighborhood west of Austin.
His message was clear: governing first, politics second.
The wildfires come just weeks after Perry entered the GOP presidential race and shot to the top of national polls taking an early measure of the Republican field.
It didn't take long for Perry to be subjected to the scrutiny a presidential campaign brings. He has faced criticism for his record as Texas governor and his positions on some issues. His down-home, Texas-style demeanor hasn't always played well on a national stage.
Now, Perry — whose job includes coordinating his state's wildfire response — has the chance to try to boost his image and set himself apart from his GOP presidential rivals by showing off his leadership and management skills as Republicans nationwide weigh whether he has what it takes to be president. Not one of his opponents is a sitting governor.
"It gives Perry an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, to demonstrate decisiveness and at the same time empathy and caring," said Todd Harris, a Republican consultant who has worked on a number of GOP presidential campaigns. "You can't do anything that looks, sounds or smells even remotely political. If it looks like you are taking advantage of a disaster and trying to use it for political purposes, it will backfire."
Perry also could end up looking weak and ineffective should the fires continue to rage without interruption or if the state's response is perceived to be slow or subpar. Just ask former President George W. Bush, whose sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina shaped his second term and forever tarnished his reputation.
"It's always an advantage for a candidate to be acting rather than talking," said Frank Donatelli, chairman of GOPAC, an organization that trains Republicans to run for elective office. "If you take control of the situation and then don't deliver, that's a bad thing."
And Perry could open himself up to charges of hypocrisy.
He has said he will request federal disaster relief for this round of wildfires — although he bashes the federal government and Washington every chance he gets, even as flames envelop parts of his state. And while he was seeking federal money, he took a swipe at the Defense Department, suggesting that bureaucratic red tape was holding up bulldozers and other equipment from nearby Fort Hood that could be used to fight the fires around central Texas.
"It's more difficult than it should be to get those types of assets freed up by the federal government," Perry said. "When you've got people hurting, when you've got lives that are in danger in particular, I really don't care who the asset belongs to. If it's sitting in some yard somewhere and not helping be part of the solution, that's a problem."
Perry overlooked the fact that Fort Hood is battling its own wildfires. Tyler Broadway, a spokesman for the post, said bulldozers cutting firebreaks around the blaze were part of an effort that had fires there only 60 percent contained by Tuesday night.
Fires have blackened 3.5 million acres, an area roughly the size of Connecticut, across the state since December.
President Barack Obama rejected Texas' request in April for federal aid due to wildfires, but then declared 45 fire-ravaged counties a major disaster in July, after Perry wrote to the White House to appeal the previous decision. The Agriculture Department has also declared all of Texas a natural disaster area due to a relentless drought, making farmers eligible for low-interest emergency loans.
As fire raged back home on Sunday, Perry abruptly left a campaign trip to South Carolina to head to Bastrop, a quaint community about 25 miles from Austin where a wildfire that spanned more than 16 miles was raging out of control. When he arrived, Perry got an earful from evacuated residents who demanded to know why more state planes weren't being used to pour water on the flames.
"Where are the planes?" several gathered in the municipal building's lobby shouted.
Clearly taken aback, Perry mumbled, "The planes are flying."
"We don't seem them!" some in the crowd shot back.
But the heckling was short-lived. The same crowd applauded a few minutes later when Perry responded to a question about Wednesday's debate in Simi Valley, Calif., saying he was "not paying attention to politics right now."
Despite aides' assurances he definitely will debate, Perry left open the possibility that he still may skip it. Asked if he would have time to prepare even if he does attend, Perry said, "We'll deal with that when it comes up."