Once again, tragedy has thrust a governor into the spotlight.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) on Tuesday became the leader of a state coping with the first major terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2011. Patrick on Monday succinctly and pointedly brushed aside a question from a conspiracy theorist, held a press conference Tuesday announcing that there were no unexploded devices at the scene of the tragedy, and tweeted a picture of him meeting with Boston Marathon staff.

The early actions begin a process that will at least partially define his two terms as governor -- and, by extension, his political future.

In a time of tragedy, it's hard and seems callous to focus on politics. But few situations have more bearing on whether a given leader becomes a major national player. And Patrick is on the cusp.

Case in point: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who has seen his popularity skyrocket in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy but at the same time caused a rift with the party's conservative base, which has criticized him for embracing President Obama too much in the week before the 2012 election.

Christie's response to Sandy was clearly the most significant moment of his tenure and has both made him a clear favorite to win reelection in 2013 and built his profile in advance of a potential 2016 presidential bid.

Another prime example is New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), who became almost a folk hero in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and was an early favorite for the GOP's presidential nomination in 2008, before his campaign imploded.

On the flip side is what happened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The shoddy response to the natural disaster in New Orleans was essentially the last straw for President George W. Bush and also sunk Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D), who didn't seek a second term.

Patrick has already endured some very high highs and some very low lows as governor.

Upon his election, the former assistant U.S. attorney general became the second elected black governor in the country's history and quickly gained buzz as a potential national figure for his party. His approval rating plummeted in his first term, though, as he faced a budget crisis and shepherded $1 billion in tax increases into law. Polls at the time showed people didn't think Patrick was delivering his promises of reform.

He won reelection in a three-way race in 2010 with less than 49 percent of the vote, as his approval rating rebounded in a huge way. A Suffolk University poll in October 2012 showed his approval rating a robust 59 percent, with just 28 percent disapproving. Despite being able to seek a third term, Patrick has opted against it.

Today, Patrick is often mentioned in the second tier of potential presidential candidates. A more likely path for him, though, seems to be attorney general -- especially given he has already served in a No. 2 spot in the Justice Department's civil rights division.

If indeed Patrick is in line for the latter job, that makes his leadership in the coming weeks and months even more crucial. And with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino continuing to deal with health problems and now a broken leg, it seems likely that Patrick will be the face of the local response.

The fact is that right now very few people know who Deval Patrick is. That will change quickly, and whether it changes for the good or the bad will determine whether Patrick stays in the spotlight in the years to come.