ROCHESTER, N.H. -- Four years ago, the Republican candidates for president met for a final debate before the New Hampshire primary. Mitt Romney had been the presumed frontrunner but was no longer -- he had been embarrassed by Mike Huckabee in Iowa and was facing a resurgent John McCain in New Hampshire. Yet his rivals could not resist going after him, even in his weakened state. They ganged up on Romney in a tag team, taking turns with their shots and cackling in glee whenever someone else landed a hit. A report from the time:

The fireworks started in the first minutes of the debate, which aired on ABC, when Romney trashed Huckabee's recent essay in Foreign Affairs magazine in which the former Arkansas governor criticized the Bush administration for having an "arrogant bunker mentality" on foreign policy. In response, Huckabee pushed back, accusing Romney of echoing a similar opinion last year and of supporting a "timed withdrawal" of troops from Iraq.
"Don't characterize my position," Romney warned.
"Which one?" Huckabee shot back.
And that wasn't the only venom of the night. When Romney went after McCain, accusing him of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants (a charge Romney makes in one of his TV ads airing here in New Hampshire), the Arizona senator repeatedly denied the charge. "You can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, my friend, but it still won't be true," McCain said, referring to the millions of his own dollars that Romney has pumped into his campaign.
McCain's line elicited a loud cackle downstage from Rudy Giuliani, who has clashed more than once with Romney over immigration. Fred Thompson, a mostly quiet presence in the debate, went after Romney a few seconds later on the issue. "Didn't you say Republicans were making a terrible mistake if they were separating themselves with President Bush on the illegal immigration issue?" Thompson asked. Romney said he'd been misquoted, which prompted McCain to jump back in. "You're always misquoted," McCain scoffed. "When you change positions on issues from time to time, you will get misquoted." From downstage, Giuliani laughed again, and Romney was visibly irritated, accusing McCain of "personal attacks."
But Romney didn't get much of a reprieve. A few minutes later, Giuliani piled on Romney, reminding the audience that nobody in the field has a perfect record on immigration--not even Ronald Reagan, who Giuliani called "the hero of our party." "Ronald Reagan did amnesty," Giuliani said. "I think he'd be in one of Mitt's commercials. This time, it was McCain who laughed.

Four years later, Romney actually is the frontrunner. He tied for first in the Iowa caucuses and instead of facing McCain back in New Hampshire returns to find only Jon Huntsman, who apparently left his charisma in a back alley somewhere in Guangzhou. Romney is going to become the nominee in a matter of a few weeks unless someone mounts some sort of sustained challenge. And instead, we get Saturday night's bizarre spectacle, in which the closest anyone came to a confrontation with him was Newt Gingrich's mild invocation of a Wall Street Journal column comparing the two mens' economic plans; Huntsman's even milder pushback against Romney's anti-China demagoguery, and Rick Santorum's shaky, if not fully Pawlentyesque, restatement of his case that Romney's business experience does not equal true leadership. That's it. The rest of the time was spent talking about contraception and gay marriage (thanks, George!) and listening to Ron Paul lecture us about debt liquidation. Consider: just three days before the New Hampshire primary, with Romney 25 points ahead in state polls, there was but a single glancing reference made to Romneycare, and no focus on his sundry flip-flops. Amazing.

After the debate, I drove over to Rochester in the Seacoast area, where Romney will tomorrow be auditioning one of his vice presidential possibilities, er, holding a primary campaign rally with Tim Pawlenty. On the way, I passed a Dunkin Donuts with a sign declaring that "pancake bites are back." Would it be too much to ask, non-Romney candidates, that tomorrow's breakfast debate on NBC include a few pancake bites? Or at least just a couple nibbles?

*Well, the non-Romneys got in a couple nips at Sunday morning's NBC debate in Concord, if not the full chomps they needed to. Check out my latest post for a report: http://is.gd/hKVeT8