That Perry sure acts like a leader, says ... the Washington Post?

Rick Perry’s decision to head back to Texas to deal with wildfires across his state may have annoyed the organizers of a conference in South Carolina, but it left an impression with some media outlets.  As Jim Geraghty notes, the Washington Post isn’t too likely to give Perry many friendly headlines, but the Texas governor has to like this one — “Rick Perry’s response to Texas wildfires offers glimpse of leadership“:

With wildfires raging across his state, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) assumed a familiar role this week: crisis commander in chief.

His abrupt decision this week to cut short his presidential campaign schedule in South Carolina to oversee his state’s response to the fires offers a glimpse of a central aspect of his leadership style — and a look at what kind of president he would be.

Since Perry took office in 2001, four hurricanes have made direct landfall in Texas. Another, Rita, came by way of Louisiana and caused more than $11 billion in damage. And then there was Katrina, which plowed into New Orleans in August 2005 and pushed hundreds of thousands of evacuees into the arms of Texas.

So what kind of president would Perry make, as demonstrated by his crisis-management experience?

There is perhaps no greater illustration of Perry’s leadership in crisis than his oversight of Texas’s response to Katrina. He took pains to declare the state open to those who would need shelter from the storm, and he toured the Astrodome in Houston to check in with displaced families. And long before the storm struck, cities and counties and state emergency officials had begun preparing to receive evacuees from the Gulf Coast. In the end, the state took in hundreds of thousands of evacuees, found permanent housing for thousands of them, helped with job placement and enrolled children in schools. …

“One of his secrets is he picks really good people and lets them do their job,” said Robert A. Eckels, a Houston lawyer and former county judge who used to lead the county’s emergency response and helped coordinate the sheltering of 250,000 Katrina evacuees from neighboring Louisiana. “People look to the leadership style of a president. He’s going to set the tone and bring in good people and expect them to do their jobs well, and when they don’t, someone else will fill the hole. That’s the kind of leadership style we’ve seen in Texas and you’d see in America under Rick Perry.”

The Post also includes grumbling from Perry’s critics that he’s more interested in photo ops than actual leadership, although one can chalk that up to sour grapes, considering that the source is Perry’s defeated 2010 opponent Bill White. The Post’s Amy Gardner delivers a line after the jump that’s destined to become a Perry campaign ad:

One thing is certain: Perry has more experience leading a state in crisis than any other contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

It’s going to be tough to top that in tonight’s presidential debate from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, but Perry’s opponents will have to give it a try.  As I write in my column for The Week today, all Perry has to do is look presidential and not scary, which should be relatively easy to do in his first outing.  The moderators will try to trip him up, so Perry had better prepare for it:

The debate moderators will undoubtedly test the new candidate on some hot-button issues — especially evolution. Other candidates have already endured such questions in every debate thus far. Perry’s response to this question and other are-you-spooky queries should be blunt and direct. No one will be voting for president in this disastrous business climate based on the candidates’ views on evolution, Perry should remind viewers, and ask why the moderators aren’t focusing on jobs and the economy instead.

For Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, the path forward is trickier.  If Mitt comes out in full attack mode, it will provide a jarring contrast with his carefully-cultivated image of unflappable, presidential leadership.  He can certainly draw contrasts between his extensive private-sector experience and Perry’s lifelong tenure in the public sector, but attacking too much will make it look as though Perry’s sudden ascent has Romney rattled.  Besides, Romney isn’t very good at attacking, as we have seen in the 2008 race, and on many issues Romney is even more vulnerable than Perry, such as government mandates.

Bachmann has nothing to lose by going on the attack, but there are still potential dangers for her:

Of the top-ranked candidates in the polls, Bachmann seemingly has the least to lose in going on the offensive. She attacked Pawlenty repeatedly on the campaign trail, and did so again in the Ames, Iowa, debate — sometimes stretching the truth to the breaking point, especially when Bachmann claimed that Pawlenty “imposed” cap-and-trade in Minnesota (the state has no such law, and Pawlenty eventually opposed a proposal to pass one) and said that he’d governed the state like Barack Obama. Bachmann did well enough at the Ames straw poll to drive Pawlenty out of the race, but she lost about 20 percent of the supporters she brought to the pay-to-vote straw poll, barely finishing ahead of Ron Paul. Within days, Bachmann started losing ground to Perry in Iowa and nationally.

Bachmann can score points on Perry for the arguable instances of crony capitalism on his record. However, she can’t go overboard again like she did in Ames with Pawlenty. Perry has already proven her wrong about his track record with Texas budgets in the past week, and if she gets it wrong again, Perry will have a big opening to question Bachmann’s grasp of facts and issues, a theme that has already arisen in this campaign. Still, with her numbers sinking across the board and her campaign leadership in crisis, Bachmann doesn’t have much to lose, and has to stop the decline back into second-tier status.

All Perry needs to do is keep from damaging himself and give voters a good first impression.  If he does that, then it will be a two-man race to the finish.