Texas Governor Rick Perry has swiftly risen to the top of opinion polls since he entered the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination last month.

All eyes will be on Perry, who shot past top rivals Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, at a Republican candidates' debate in Simi Valley, California, on Wednesday.

Here are some facts about Perry.

* An outspoken anti-Washington conservative, Perry, 61, was an early supporter of the low-tax, limited-government Tea Party movement. He is especially popular with social and religious conservatives, a key base for the Republican Party. He is known for longstanding opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage.

* Now in his fourth term in office, Perry has never lost an election and is the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He was originally a Democrat when he entered politics in the mid-1980s as a member of the Texas House of Representatives and was the Texas chairman of Al Gore's 1988 presidential campaign. He switched parties in 1989 and later became agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and then governor in 2000 when George W. Bush left for the White House.

* Perry sometimes draws comparisons to Bush, the last Texas governor in the White House, raising the possibility of Texas fatigue among voters nationally. But the two men have a sometimes antagonistic relationship, made worse by Perry's criticism of Bush's heavy federal spending as president. Bush left office with low public approval ratings.

* Perry caused a nationwide stir in 2009 when he openly pondered his state's secession from the United States. While speaking at a Tea Party event in Austin some supporters shouted secede. Perry said there was no reason to dissolve the union -- but suggested Texans might want to if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people.

* Perry offered prayers for America at a religious rally he convened in Houston in August that drew an estimated 30,000 people. While billed as a day of prayer for a nation in crisis, the event gave Perry a national platform to sharpen his appeal to religious conservatives who play a big role in the Republican nominating race. He came under heavy fire from critics who said the gathering blurred the line between church and state.

* In an incident that has become famous, Perry shot dead a coyote that he felt had threatened his daughter's dog as he jogged on a trail near Austin in 2010. He said he needed just one shot from the laser-sighted pistol he sometimes carries to protect himself from snakes when he runs.

* Perry defeated U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in a bruising Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010. After trailing Hutchison in initial polls in 2009, Perry surged to a commanding lead by mobilizing his party's most conservative members and harnessing disenchantment with President Barack Obama and Washington politics.

* Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and a potential Republican presidential candidate, campaigned for Perry in his 2010 race. He named her an honorary Texan.

* Perry is a rancher who earned a degree in animal science from Texas A&M University in 1972. After college, he served five years in the U.S. Air Force and was a C-130 pilot. He met his wife, Anita, in elementary school. They married in 1982 and have two children.