A Fox News Debate That Skimped on ‘the Elephant Not in the Room’

Still, Mr. Trump’s decision to appear in an online video, instead of a nationally televised debate, reflected the changing role of cable news in presidential campaigns, where mass media has yielded some of its gatekeeper powers to more niche outlets aimed at die-hard fans, not swing voters.

Eight years ago, Fox News drew a record 24 million viewers for the first debate of the 2016 Republican primary. Americans tuned in to gawk at Mr. Trump, then a novelty, who dominated the evening with tasteless attacks on Rosie O’Donnell and a fiery clash with the moderator Megyn Kelly, who attempted to hold Mr. Trump to account for his misogynistic behavior.

At the time, Mr. Trump’s name-calling and aggressive presence were an anomaly in the relatively civil arena of presidential debates. On Wednesday, his legacy could be seen in the broadsides of candidates like Mr. Christie, who compared Mr. Ramaswamy to a human version of ChatGPT. (The only audible expletive came from an off-color lyric in “Rich Men North of Richmond,” the popular country song and conservative anthem that Fox News played ahead of the night’s first question.)

Privately, Fox News management downplayed Mr. Trump’s absence on Wednesday night, although the network’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, visited Mr. Trump at his New Jersey club this month to try to persuade him to appear. On Wednesday, the Fox moderators earned some praise for asking a string of substantive questions on subjects ranging from abortion rights to climate change to former Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to go along with Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

This was not the first time that Mr. Trump had snubbed a major Fox event. In January 2016, on the eve of the crucial Iowa caucuses, Mr. Trump pulled out of a network debate because Ms. Kelly was set to be one of the moderators. “Let’s see how much money Fox is going to make on the debate without me,” he taunted at the time.

Mr. Trump went on to narrowly lose the caucuses. He showed up for Fox’s next primary debate in March, and after he won the nomination, the network’s prime-time commentators embraced him, proving that media stars and star politicians share at least one key attribute: adaptability.

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