POLITICS

Perry undecided on GOP debate because of wildfires

Gov. Rick Perry holds a news conference to discuss wild fires in central Texas, Monday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Call it a leadership test in real time.

Rick Perry left the presidential campaign trail this week to dash back to Texas, where wildfires have devoured more than 1,000 homes in a week.

"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. His attendance at a debate Wednesday night in California — it would be his first on the national stage — is now in question.

"I'm substantially more concerned about making sure Texans are being taken care of," Perry said Tuesday after viewing by helicopter the 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.

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