Call it the Alberto Gonzales approach to the system of checks and balances.

Asked whether he would obey the Constitution and consult Congress before sending US troops into combat, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney says he would consult his lawyers first.

Just as President Bush turned to Gonzales for legal opinions that the disgraced former White House counsel and Attorney General wrote with the purpose of absolving the commander-in-chief of any duty to uphold the Constitution, so Romney says that he would take his cue from contemporary counselors rather than the Founders of the American experiment.

The question in Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate in Michigan came from MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who asked, “Governor Romney… if you were president of the United States, would you need to go to Congress to get authorization to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities?”

Romney responded, “You sit down with your attorneys and (they) tell you what you have to do. But obviously the president of the United States has to do what’s in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat. The president did that as he was planning on moving into Iraq and received the authorization of Congress…”

Matthews interjected: “Did (President Bush) need (a go-ahead from Congress)?”

“You know,” Romney replied, “we’re going to let the lawyers sort out what he needed to do and what he didn’t need to do.”

Most of the other GOP contenders paid at least a measure of lip service to Constitutional niceties, with Arizona Senator John McCain and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson displaying relative respect for the separation of powers while former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee adopted the mad-bomber line.

When all was said and done, however, only Texas Congressman Ron Paul actually challenged Romney’s disregard of the essential document.

Matthews asked, “Congressman Paul, do you believe the President needs authorization of Congress to attack strategic targets in Iran, nuclear facilities?”

“Absolutely,” said Paul, who in 2002 was one of six House Republicans to vote against authorizing Bush to attack Iraq. “This idea of going and talking to attorneys totally baffles me. Why don’t we just open up the Constitution and read it? You’re not allowed to go to war without a declaration of war.”

Paul went on to dismiss the whole notion that Iran poses a threat to the US. “The thought that the Iranians could pose an imminent attack on the United States is preposterous. There’s no way. This is just… war propaganda, continued war propaganda, preparing this nation to go to war and spread this war not only in Iraq, but into Iran, unconstitutionally. It is a road to disaster for us as a nation. It’s a road to our financial disaster if we don’t read the Constitution once in a while.”

Later, Paul would attempt to explain to Rudy Giuliani that the September 11, 2001, attacks were carried out by terrorists, rather than a foreign government. When the former New York mayor again attempted to use the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as justification for preemptive attacks on sovereign states, Paul explained with regard to September 11: “That was no country. That was 19 thugs. That had nothing to do with a country.”

Giuliani wasn’t having any of it. “So imminent attack is a possibility, and we should be ready for it,” the Republican front runner ranted, before declaring that “we have to be willing to use a military option” against Iran.

That dust-up may explain one of the more intriguing exchanges of Tuesday night’s debate.

“Congressman Paul,” moderator Matthews asked, “do you promise to support the nominee of the Republican Party next year?”

“Not right now I don’t,” Paul replied. “Not unless they’re willing to end the war and bring our troops home. And not unless they are willing to look at the excess in spending. No, I’m not going to support them if they continue down the path that has taken our party down the tubes.”