Wednesday's lackluster Republican presidential debate kept coming back to Mitt Romney's personal faith--not Mormonism, but managerialism.

“I’ve spent the last, as I told you, 25 years in the private sector,” Romney said, seemingly forgetting that, from 2003 through the beginning of this year, he was governor of Massachusetts. But his slip of the tongue called attention to one fact: He is campaigning for president as if he were applying for the position of national CEO. As he promised in the debate, he wants to be a chief executive who will set clear priorities, trim the federal budget, and address problems like the economy, education, and trade with the clearheaded, cold-blooded skill of the successful management consultant that he once was.

Just as Mike Huckabee is winning the support of theocons, Mitt Romney is running as a CEO-con whose business background bespeaks a commitment to fiscal conservatism on one hand, and skepticism of squishy liberalism on the other. Long before he became bogged down in disputes about whether Mormons are Christians, Romney stressed a more temporal type of redemption--his success in turning around Massachusetts state government, the 2002 Winter Olympics, and scores of companies.

Although Romney set the pace in presenting himself as a take-charge guy, his leading rivals also used the debate to present themselves as no-nonsense executives. Answering a question about education, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee bragged: “I was a governor ten and a half years. I had executive experience longer than anyone on this stage running a government.” Not to be outdone in managerial machismo (and, obviously, 9/11 chest-thumping), Rudy Giuliani declared, “I’ve been tested by having to provide leadership through crisis, through difficult crisis--not just September 11, but in my time as United States attorney, associate attorney general, mayor of New York City. And America needs bold leadership. We have big problems.”

Arizona Senator John McCain also stressed his experience in making life-and-death decisions, explaining, “I’ve been involved in every major national security issue of our time.” Former Senator Fred Thompson, who’s never been an executive but has played presidents, prosecutors, and military commanders in the movies and on TV, repeatedly described himself as a tough truth-teller. What’s more, he looks like a boss and talks and gestures like a guy who speaks last in a FedEx ad where a meek underling makes a suggestion that is ignored until it is repeated by an authoritative coworker.

All of this makes sense, of course, when you consider the failures of the man they’re all trying to replace, the man whose name not one of the Republican presidential candidates dared to mention on Wednesday. While Romney would be the second president in a row with an MBA from Harvard Business School, his unspoken message is that he wouldn’t have botched Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War; he wouldn’t have run up record deficits; and he certainly wouldn’t have hired and held onto loyalists like Michael Brown and Alberto Gonzales. In its recent endorsement, the National Review explicitly stated: “At a time when voters yearn for competence and have soured on Washington because too often the Bush Administration has not demonstrated it, Romney offers proven executive skill.”

When it comes to managerial competence, Republicans can be expected to play offense as well as defense. They’ll present the Democratic presidential nominee--who almost certainly will be a current or former senator--as a talker, not a doer. While the Republican nominee can be expected to say that his rival “never ran anything,” there will be an ideological subtext: She or he doesn’t know how the world really works and will indulge in social engineering at home and appeasement abroad.

In 1988, another Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, said the presidential election was about “competence, not ideology.” But, for Mitt Romney and his rivals, managerial competence is an ideology--if they were to assign Bush’s failings  to anything other than incompetence (like, say, an inherently flawed governing philosophy), their entire world would implode--so count on this election to be about executives and managerialism, not evangelicalism and Mormonism.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever, to be published next year by John A. Wiley and Sons.

By David Kusnet