Across the road from the hall which will host the next Republican debate people are being enlisted to vote for Frank Urquhart.

There is a small wooden booth and people can take a moment to be photographed in a mockup of the Oval office. The media are treated to campaign t-shirts, badges and free massages.

Urquhart is fictional. He is the US president in the Netflix series House of Cards, which has captured many awards and impressive viewing figures.

The candidates in the real-life race must wish they could turn to the last page of the script and find out how it all ends for them.

US Republican candidate under fire in debate

There’ll be six candidates on the stage here in South Carolina. The last men standing. And the fewest we have had on the main debate stage through this process.

It seems a long time since the first debate in Cleveland back in August.

It is easy to write off these gatherings. The candidates have their answers rehearsed, their positions memorised and in preparation they have probably covered every conceivable question that might be asked.

Yet, the debates have had a direct impact. There has been no shortage of action.

Ben Carson was riding high in the polls until he came under the spotlight in the debates. He has struggled to articulate a considered foreign policy. And he has looked disengaged and distant. If this is his last primary and even his last debate, few would be surprised.

Carly Fiorina’s campaign enjoyed its best moments after her impressive first debate performance which saw her promoted to the main debate at round two in California. But she failed to capitalise on that exposure, and then failed to win significant votes in either Iowa and New Hampshire. Her campaign is now over, her race is run.

And then there was Donald Trump’s no-show. He refused to turn up for the debate in Iowa just days before the state’s caucus. At that point he was high in the polls, had a significant lead and looked a good bet for victory. But he got into a row with the organisers, the American TV Network, Fox News, and held his own event across town in Des Moines.

For someone who has written his own rules during this campaign, it was a big miscalculation.

With no Trump dominating the stage, the others could shine. And in particular, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida grabbed their moment. Cruz won in Iowa, Rubio came third, just a short distance behind Trump. 

When everyone moved on to New Hampshire, Trump was back on the stage.

His performance, which was polished and snarky in almost equal measure, helped propel him to his first victory and reestablished the moment his campaign needed.

Instead it was Marco Rubio who had an awful night.

Rubio's campaign was surging, momentum building behind him after his Iowa performance. But he was skillfully dismantled by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who highlighted the fact that Rubio persistently pivoted to his talking points, the “rehearsed 25 seconds given to you by your advisors”.

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Rubio could have perhaps, with a bit more sense, turned such an accusation around. Instead he repeated an attack line on President Obama, not once but twice. He came over as inauthentic and left everyone wondering if every answer was scripted.

He had no idea how badly he had done until he stepped off stage and started scrolling through Twitter. He was, according to his campaign staff, “shocked” at the mocking, the criticism and brutal reviews of his performance.

And it changed the race in a profound way. Rubio was no longer the establishment figure most likely to succeed. He looked tired, young and inexperienced. In the final couple of days in New Hampshire campaign, he was followed by people dressed as robots. He stumbled in a speech and awkwardly repeated a line. He tried to adjust the end, but the damage was done and the narrative building around him was reinforced.

Rubio finished fifth in New Hampshire. He acknowledged he was at fault, telling supporters at his “victory party: “I did not do well on Saturday. That will never happen again."

It was the sort of unexpected and unforgettable moment which can kill a campaign.

And it was a reminder of the power of these debates.

Source: Al Jazeera