Greg Abbott, the arch-conservative leading the Harvey response

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Washington (AFP)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been the ubiquitous face of the state's response to the havoc unleashed by Hurricane Harvey, but the arch-conservative hasn't always been the calm, reassuring figure he is today.

Residents and officials have hailed his leadership throughout the crisis, with Democrats casting aside their differences to work together against one of the worst disasters in the Lone Star state's history.

It has not always been this way. Prior to Harvey, one of Abbott's main claims to national fame was the staggering number of lawsuits he filed against the administration of then president Barack Obama -- more than 30, according to an analysis by the Texas Tribune.

Indeed, he reveled in being something of a liberal bogeyman in this largely conservative state that has in recent years become a testing ground for Republican policymakers looking to advance their hard right conservative agenda nationwide.

But since Harvey came crashing down on the Texas coast Friday night, he has made common cause with elected officials from both parties, holding press conferences in a commanding, unflustered voice to keep citizens abreast of the latest developments as multiple local, state and federal agencies undertake relief operations.

"We won't say congratulations," Donald Trump told him Tuesday on a visit to flood-stricken areas. "We'll congratulate each other when it's all finished. But you have been terrific."

Abbott effectively stifled an early potential controversy, declining to criticize the Democratic mayor of Houston for not evacuating the city ahead of the hurricane. Rather, Abbott insisted there was no question of revisiting decisions already taken and said it was more important to look ahead.

In emergency relief centers, most survivors appear satisfied.

"Excellent from what I can see," said Derryl Bodreaux, a 68-year-old Democrat who came to a convention center shelter because no food stores were open. "I've been here 66 years and I haven't seen anyone respond like they responded for this particular incident."

Some others said credit largely went to individual volunteers and private entities such as churches, but found little to fault the governor.

The mayors of the state's major cities such as Houston and Dallas, Democratic islands in a vast Republican ocean, have avoided speaking out against him.

-- 'True' American values --

The 59-year-old, who is a lawyer by training, was named to the Supreme Court of Texas in 1995 by then governor George W Bush. He entered the political fray in 2002 to become elected the state's attorney general.

At the heart of his message was the accident which, at the age of 26, left him paralyzed below the waist when a tree fell on him while he was out jogging. "It was the lesson of never, ever giving up," said Abbott, who since that time has used a wheelchair.

He transformed the post into a national springboard for defending conservative values, especially freedom of religious expression in public spaces, the right to bear arms, and reducing the powers of the federal government.

To this end, he enlisted the services of a brilliant lawyer by the name of Ted Cruz -- now a Texas senator and ex-rival of Trump in last year's Republican presidential primary.

One of Abbott's greatest successes was his defense of a Ten Commandments monument in front of Capitol building in Austin against a challenge in the Supreme Court by a citizen who had claimed it violated the separation of church and state.

"They really proactively sought to use the office to advance what they would describe as conservative values across the country," said Patrick Svitek, a political journalist for the Texas Tribune, adding that Abbott sought to bolster his reputation through his lawsuits against the federal government.

Elected governor in 2014, he has continued his obsession with making Texas a beacon for "true" American values -- unlike those of its eternal rival, California, a progressive bastion.

"Ever since Abbott took office, California has been his number one boogeyman to push various policies," added Svitek.

A major example is the fight against illegal immigration. In the state legislature he pushed a bill against so-called "sanctuary cities" -- Democratic municipalities where officials have refused to cooperate with federal authorities in cracking down on undocumented migrants.

The law was set to come into force Friday but was challenged in court, and was temporarily blocked late Wednesday. Over the summer, he also supported a "bathroom bill" pushed by Republican hardliners in the state legislature which would have prohibited transgender people from using the toilet of their choice, though that measure failed.

In polling, he is currently the most popular Republican in Texas.

It remains to be seen whether he can leverage the exposure from Harvey to secure a future of the national stage.

The last two men to hold his job -- George W Bush and Rick Perry, both ended up running for president.