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Good Mitt, Bad Mitt

Manchester, New Hampshire--The early conventional wisdom is that Thursday’s tragedy in Pakistan will help the Republican candidate with the most foreign policy experience (John McCain) and the one most associated with 9/11 (Rudy Giuliani). For all I know about the dynamics of Republican primary politics, that’s correct.

But listening to Mitt Romney during an impromptu press conference here on Thursday, I thought he acquitted himself pretty well--at least, once he left his prepared script and began answering questions.

The day had begun with Romney issuing a perfunctory statement, one that--all too predictably--used the tragedy both to validate the war in Iraq but chastise critics of Bush foreign policy:

We are still learning the details of today's tragic events in Pakistan, but this is a stark reminder that America must not only stay on high alert, but remain actively engaged across the globe. Pakistan has long been a key part in the war against extremism and radical jihadists. For those who think Iraq is the sole front in the War on Terror, one must look no further than what has happened today. America must show its commitment to stand with all moderate forces across the Islamic world and together face the defining challenge of our generation--the struggle against violent, radical jihadists.

What struck me more, though, was the give-and-take he had with the media after his speech. Several times, reporters pressed him on exactly what he would do if he was president and had just been handed the news about Bhutto’s assassination. Romney, to his credit, didn’t bite.

He noted that he didn’t presently have access to the sort of classified information necessary to make an informed decision. And he refused, despite prodding, to engage in hypothetical questions about what to do in case the country slipped into some sort of Civil War. Instead, he described how he’d make his decisions--by pulling together experts with different points of view, having them hash out arguments, and making the best call based on that information.

Before you say "duh," consider that these are precisely the kinds of open-ended--and open-minded--debates about foreign policy that has not taken place since George W. Bush took office. And, of course, it’s this sort of deliberative decision-making for which Romney became famous as a legendary management consultant. (My notes are a bit fuzzy on this, but I think he used the words "debate" and "deliberative" at least three times apiece.)

Say what you will about his politics and principles, but Romney’s analytical skills are beyond reproach. When he chooses to use them--rather than, say, pander to the conservative base – he has the potential to be an effective leader. Of course, that’s been the problem with Romney all along, as editorialists at various New Hampshire newspapers have been noting: You never know which Romney you'll get.

--Jonathan Cohn