AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Rick Perry left wildfire-ravaged Texas on Wednesday and flew to California to debate his Republican presidential rivals, deciding that the chance to deliver his message to a national audience outweighed any criticism he might receive for not being at the scene of a home-state emergency.
Perry's move surprised some political experts and appeared to violate a cardinal rule of disaster politics for chief executives. Democrats immediately questioned his judgment. "If Perry stayed at home to work on the fires I don't think there would be any room for criticism. But this opens it up for his opponents to hit him on this issue," said Matt Angle, director of the Texas Democratic Trust, which supports Democratic candidates statewide.
But after two-plus days monitoring the firefighting effort and talking to residents evacuated from some of the hardest-hit areas, Perry said he could safely return to the campaign trail. He participated in a televised debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Wednesday night, then was scheduled to remain in the West for two days of fundraisers in San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno and other cities.
Some Republican observers argued Perry's decision won't cost him as long as the firefighting operation is well managed. Calmer winds have helped authorities gain a measure of control of the largest blaze in Texas, the Bastrop-area fire that has charred more than 33,000 acres and destroyed 800 homes. More than 170 wildfires have erupted in the past week across the Lone Star state, destroying a total of at least 1,200 homes.
"The public understands his job is to be governor, not fireman," said veteran GOP analyst Alex Castellanos, who worked on President George W. Bush's re-election campaign. "Americans know he can meet both his responsibilities as governor and as a Republican candidate."
When asked about being outside Texas when the worst wildfires started over the weekend, Perry said, "we've been multitasking in this state for a long time."
Before Wednesday night's debate, Perry discussed the fires while chatting backstage with some of his fellow candidates. Herman Cain and then Mitt Romney asked the governor how Texas was faring.
"Have they been brought under control?" Romney asked, talking across the room to Perry.
"It's still too early to tell," Perry responded. "They're serious, they're mean." He did not mention them during the debate itself.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is acting governor in Perry's absence, said he will sign a request that the federal government declare Texas a major disaster area. "I'm in constant communication with Gov. Perry," Dewhurst said.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday telephoned Perry assuring him that requests for additional assistance would be quickly assessed. The White House said Obama made clear that the federal government will continue to provide assistance to state and local officials fighting the fire.
The political risk for a chief executive who does not personally oversee disaster response was underscored in 2005 when President Bush was sharply criticized for the troubled federal relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, governors and presidents have taken a visible role at disaster sites, and many expected Perry to leave his campaign on hold longer than he did.
The wildfire response "gives Perry an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, to demonstrate decisiveness and at the same time empathy and caring," said Todd Harris, a Republican consultant. He added, however, that "you can't do anything that looks, sounds or smells even remotely political."
But Perry's calculation changed as the debate approached. For his campaign, it was a prime opportunity for a candidate who, while leading the Republican field in recent polls, is an unknown quantity for most voters outside Texas.
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