The race is getting tighter, the prize is a little nearer and the debates are a lot more confrontational in the Republican presidential nomination battle.
The remaining six candidates faced off in Greenville, South Carolina, one week before the important primary there.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher was there and looks at how the candidates performed.
The debate came just hours after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was announced. And that brought a rare moment of unity at the start of the debate. There was a moment of silence, then all six Republicans argued that President Barack Obama should not appoint a replacement, as the U.S. constitution allows. Instead they believe the appointment should be left to the next president. And of course they all believe that the next president will be a Republican. And they all believe that Republican will be them.
From there we moved on to the usual areas of foreign policy, immigration and taxation, and that is where the splits among the candidates and the growing personal animosity was on display.
Jeb Bush: He has become steadily better as a debater as this process has gone on. There was one particularly bitter exchange when Trump was asked if he stood by the assertion that Jeb’s brother, President George W Bush, should have been impeached for taking the U.S. into the war in Iraq. Trump hammered the former president as a liar and hammered Jeb as a candidate. In that past that would have rattled the former Florida governor. Now he responded calmly and that just seemed to rile Trump even more. The difficulty for Bush is that he is not emerging as the man most likely to stop Trump. He needs a stellar week campaigning and a good result or the party will urge him to stand down to let one candidate fight Trump.
Ben Carson: The softly spoken retired neurosurgeon is a very nice man. We spoke before the debate. But I genuinely can’t think of one moment in any of the debates where he has really shone. His financial plan may have received high scores from influential places, but he does a terrible job of selling it. And on foreign policy he seems out of his depth. This may well have been his last hurrah.
Ted Cruz: He was called a liar, not once but twice. Marco Rubio did it. And Donald Trump weighed in, saying of the Texas senator: “You are the biggest single liar. This guy will say anything. Nasty guy”, in response to a Cruz attack. But overall Cruz had a reasonable evening. He sits solidly in second place in the polls here in South Carolina, and he should hold on to that.
John Kasich: Having watched one Bush/Trump exchange, he drew big cheers in the hall and big laughs in the media centre when he exclaimed “This is nuts. This is crazy.” He’s cultivating the image of candidate who wants everyone to get along. He warned the others that they could hand the election to Hillary Clinton if they keep ripping each other apart. While Trump expresses the anger of people who think the political system in the U.S. is broken, the Ohio governor gives the impression that he has a plan to fix it. Another strong finish here will make many take a second look at his campaign.
Marco Rubio: He had a terrible debate a week ago in New Hampshire. But here in South Carolina he seemed to be back on track. He gave strong, convincing answers on poverty and child tax credits. And got one of the biggest cheers of the night in his full-throated defence of President George W Bush. The idea that he is over-rehearsed and robotic on answers won’t disappear overnight. But he admitted to supporters that he had a bad debate in New Hampshire and “It won’t happen again”. It didn’t.
Donald Trump: This was Donald Trump at his angriest, antagonistic worst. Many people I spoke with immediately after the debate thought the businessman was constantly on the verge of losing control. Conservatives will be confused. He hammered President George W Bush, reminded everyone he was in office at the time of the 9/11 attacks and defended “some” of the work of Planned Parenthood. Given that is a woman’s health organisation that gives advice on abortion, it is widely despised by Republicans. His exchanges with Cruz and Bush were harsh, his answers at times unfocused. But it won’t matter. His 20-point lead in the polls here is pretty solid. His supporters know what they are getting and are unlikely to shift their votes elsewhere. And so Trump might have been the biggest loser on the night. But the chances are he’s still going to win.