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.
Todd Olsen, an Austin Republican consultant who has worked both for Perry and for his past opponents, said Perry needed to hold his own with better-known GOP contenders like Mitt Romney.
"It's the one debate where you can walk in and say, 'I've got one job and one job only, and that is tell voters who I am'," Olsen said. He said Perry had done everything expected of a governor coping with disaster.
In Central Texas, several residents said they didn't understand why Perry came back to lead the recovery effort, only to leave while the fires were still burning.
"I'm a little disappointed after what he said the other day about pushing politics aside because Texans are his first priority," said Guylaine Williett of Bastrop, who lives near an area that was severely burned. "Now he's out on the campaign trail." The fires in this part of Central Texas near Austin have claimed two lives and almost 800 homes.
"He's abandoning his state," said Jose "Pepe" Gomez, 57, the owner of a construction management business whose girlfriend's house was destroyed.
The governor's office says state disaster officials are highly experienced, having dealt with the threat for months. Wildfires statewide have destroyed more than 3.5 million acres — an area roughly the size of Connecticut — since December.
Since formally joining the race nearly a month ago, Perry has been a frequent visitor to key early battleground states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. According to a Gallup poll released Aug. 23, Perry was recognized by 67 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners nationwide, well behind Romney and Michele Bachmann.
His performance in Wednesday's debate could change that while giving Perry more debate experience for the long campaign. He took part in just four debates total while campaigning for governor.
"Perry's people are very disciplined," said Angle, of the Texas Democratic Trust. "They've figured out that any flack they get for leaving the fires they can deal with later."