Gov. Rick Perry leads just about every GOP presidential poll, but he will still have to prove he's the front-runner in his first national debate on Wednesday.
"Rick Perry is now the overwhelming front-runner in the Republican race for the presidential nomination on the Republican side, and he is going to be in the spotlight in this debate," said Mark Murray, NBC's deputy political director. "This is going to be his first debate, and all eyes will be on him to see if he can actually maintain that front-runner status."
Perry has a commanding lead in key polls of primary states.
The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows Perry leading Mitt Romney 38 percent to 23 percent. Rep. Ron Paul came in fourth with 9 percent, and Ames Straw Poll winner and Rep. Michele Bachmann earned 8 percent of the vote.
Tea party support has been crucial to Perry's success in the polls, but Murray pointed out that tea party support can turn on a dime.
"When you look at just tea party Republicans, they back Rick Perry by a 48 percent to15 percent margin over Mitt Romney, " Murray said. "So Rick Perry right now is really riding that tea party tiger, and that's why he had such a big lead. We saw people like Donald Trump and even Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, all kind of start to ride that tea party tiger. But Rick Perry for the first time in this presidential cycle seems to be the one in control of that and firmly riding that animal."
Perry cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to deal with one of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in Texas history.
On Tuesday, he toured a blackened area near Bastrop, about 25 miles from Austin, and later deployed the state's elite search team to the area to look for more possible victims. Texas Task Force 1 is the same outfit sent to New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"Pretty powerful visuals of individuals who lost everything," Perry said after the tour. "The magnitude of these losses are pretty stunning."
The governor would not say whether he would take part in Wednesday evening's Republican presidential debate in California, explaining that he was "substantially more concerned about making sure Texans are being taken care of." But campaign spokesman Mark Miner said in an email later in the day that Perry planned to be there.
The debate at the Ronald Reagan Library starts at 7 p.m. CT. It will air on MSNBC.
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