This was supposed to be the Republicans’ 2008. You know, a fierce battle among the party’s heavyweights to win the nomination for president. President Obama’s vulnerability in running for reelection with the economy — and the national mood — in the toilet should have turned the race into a GOP Battle of the 2012 Titans. Instead, the campaign is a mystifying mosh pit of unsatisfying characters.

Four years ago, Democrats couldn’t believe their good fortune. They had an impressive field of candidates to choose from, which soon narrowed to two sitting senators. While each had faults and made really bad fumbles along the way, folks had no problem envisioning either one sitting in the Oval Office, especially after all those debates.

The Republican race for the nomination is the exact opposite. There are three front-runners. Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. And each man is as problematic as the next.

Cain’s disastrous handling of the sexual harassment allegations with its “rolling disclosures” (h/t Chris Matthews) is really no different than his ham-handed handling of his contradictory comments on abortion, an electrified border fence, and his “9-9-9” plan. And yet Cain sits atop the polls.

Terrible debate performances aided in knocking Perry from the top spot. But his attempts to reclaim the magic of August, when he entered the race, have been shameful. He dabbled in birtherism and then disavowed it. His dance with insanity stomped all the announcement of his flat-tax announcement, which was meant to relaunch him and his campaign. Hints from Perry’s campaign that the Texas governor might skip future debates were lame. Then Perry unintentionally did his best Charlie Sheen imitation at an event in New Hampshire on Friday.

And yet he sits atop a stockpile of campaign cash that he is already deploying in the form of television ads in Iowa.

If Republicans follow their tradition of giving the nomination to the fella who was rejected the last time around, Romney is a shoo-in. Unfortunately for him, he has to watch the GOP electorate romance everyone but him — Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio . . . did I leave anyone out? — before his entreaties are accepted.

The open flirtation with anyone but Romney must be galling to the successful former Massachusetts governor. And yet he keeps giving primary voters reasons to distrust him. Romney has been all over the map on abortion, gay rights and health care. But he has now added flip-flopping stances on climate change and Ohio’s law restricting collective bargaining to the roster.

During a conversation with a  “Today” show producer last week, I called Romney ideologically promiscuous. But former Utah governor Jon Huntsman was more clever when he said, “You can’t be a perfectly lubricated weather vane on the important issues of the day.”

There’s still time for Cain, Perry or Romney to get his act together. The Iowa caucuses are two months and two days away, and there are at least five debates between now and Jan. 3.

Maybe Romney will sew this thing up by finally convincing Republican primary voters that he really is The One for them. Maybe Cain and Perry can overcome their self-inflicted wounds to finally send Romney packing.

Or maybe this contest will drag on until the bitter end, as it did for the Dems in 2008 — thus leaving a battered and bruised Republican nominee of questionable talent (and conviction?) who wilted under the glare of the national spotlight to face off against a battered and bruised Democratic incumbent whose promise of hope and change wilted under the glare of governing.