For about 15 minutes or so at the start of tonight’s South Carolina GOP debate, we had a glimpse of what might have been: the candidates really did gang up to attack Mitt Romney, and the frontrunner sounded fairly weak and hesitant in response.

And then Fox News went to commercial, and Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Rick Perry turned back into pumpkins. Oh, there were fireworks, but none of them were directed into the face of the guy who is poised to wrap up the whole thing on Saturday. It took a moderator to call Romney out on his dodge about releasing his tax returns, yet after Romney stumbled through that answer, no one raised the issue again. Romney got a tough question on gun control and gave his standard answer — surely he is vulnerable on that one, but none of the candidates bothered to follow up. No one raised “Obamneycare” all night. There were no significant shots on abortion, or on the question of flip-flopping. No, after that first break, the candidates were pretty much done with Romney.

And so instead the debate retreated back to an old favorite from the fall: What crazy thing will the audience do next? For that, we had a clear winner: The audience lustily booed the Golden Rule when Paul mentioned it in the context of international relations. Not turning the other cheek, mind you, but the Golden Rule.

If this debate had been held back in September or October, Perry might well be on his way to a big win in South Carolina. He is now, like Gingrich and (sometimes) Santorum, completely Ready For Prime Time — as a Fox News personality. As a debater who has to slip questions and sneak in attack lines? None of them are particularly good at it. And so there was nothing to slow Romney’s march to a comfortable win on Saturday in South Carolina -- and with it a lock on the nomination. Maybe something will change that, but it certainly didn’t happen tonight.