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."
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