It was a make or break debate for the seven remaining Democrats looking to challenge George W Bush for the presidency.
Next Tuesday, seven states will hold primaries or caucuses. The results will thin the field with several of the candidates feeling pressure to drop out if they fail to win.
The former frontrunner and the new frontrunner
To win, they must stop the surge of John Kerry who rallied from the back of the pack to the top of the polls.
But the candidates concentrated most of their fire in Thursday's TV debate on George W Bush rather than each other, which commentators say will do little to stop Mr Kerry's building momentum.
The debate opened with the question that Democrat voters are asking themselves: Who can beat Mr Bush?
The Kerry campaign is on a roll with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, but questions have long lingered over whether a Massachusetts liberal can win in the South.
The South Carolina primary, one of seven races next Tuesday, will be Mr Kerry and the other candidates' first test in the South.
Mr Kerry said: "I think the person who has to worry about coming down in the South and campaigning is President Bush."
He criticised the president's record on jobs, education and the environment.
Winning in the South, while mathematically not necessary, will most likely determine the next president of the United States.
As John Edwards pointed out in the debate, no Democrat has won the presidency without winning at least five states in the South.
And in South Carolina, local Democrats say that this is a two-man race between John Kerry and John Edwards.
Mr Edwards was born in South Carolina, and he tried to connect with southern voters reminding them of his roots in a South Carolina mill town.
This debate was very different than when the candidates met in South Carolina last May.
In that debate, Howard Dean and Mr Kerry exchanged insults, leaving a bad impression of both of them.
In this debate, moderator Tom Brokaw said after one of the commercial breaks: "Governor Dean said in the break, 'This is so mellow.' I invite you to stir this up if you want."
Governor Dean took his best shot, saying that Mr Kerry had failed to pass any of the 11 healthcare bills he had introduced.
John Edwards: "Bland performance"
Unlike last May, Mr Kerry kept his cool, ticked off bills he had helped pass on family medical leave, Agent Orange benefits for veterans and a child healthcare programme.
The candidates reserved their main criticism for Mr Bush.
Mr Edwards, Mr Dean and Mr Kerry all called for an independent commission to investigate President Bush's case for war in Iraq.
Dean 'on the ropes'
But in the boxing match between Mr Dean and Mr Kerry, commentators thought the former Vermont governor didn't land the punches needed.
"I think that Kerry won because the others didn't lay a glove on him," political commentator and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said on MSNBC.
Mr Edwards must win in South Carolina, or he has said he will drop out of the race. But Mr Buchanan thought he was not helped by the debate.
"I thought Edwards gave a very bland performance," he said, adding, "Kerry is moving and Edwards is not."
And pundits said former frontrunner Mr Dean continued his fall.
"This guy is on the ropes," National Public Radio's Juan Williams said on Fox News.
He added that Mr Dean "tried in a panic" to attack Mr Kerry, "but it didn't work."