Primary debates don’t have episode titles. But if the first one of the 2024 Republican primary did, it would be “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
Donald J. Trump, who won the 2016 election, lost the 2020 election and is substantially leading the party’s primary for 2024, decided to skip Wednesday’s debate on Fox News because of his polling lead. This made him the Schrödinger’s Candidate of the evening, simultaneously nowhere and everywhere.
For much of the time, the debate seemed to take place in a simulation universe, in which Mr. Trump’s 2020 loss ended his career, and the party, as well as Fox, moved on. Eight candidates — governors, former administration officials and an entirely different abrasive businessman — sparred, sniped and interrupted one another over policy and personality. It was as if Mr. Trump were no longer a thing.
You would think this would benefit the candidates onstage, who have struggled to get noticed even on the day of the debate. Mr. Trump chose to counterprogram the event with an online interview with the former Fox star Tucker Carlson, while his fellow indictees in the Georgia election interference case were siphoning off cable-news attention, flooding into Atlanta like holiday travelers on Thanksgiving weekend.
But if Mr. Trump wasn’t there, his following was, in the form of the thousands of Republican voters in the live crowd in Milwaukee, who were ready to boo any direct or implied anti-Trumpism.
This made the debate into a kind of mystic paradox: How do you beat an opponent without suggesting that he should lose? It was a lively, at times raucous but weird debate, haunted by a ghost.
The candidates onstage were not the only ones in an invisible contest with the ex-president. Fox News has been competing with Mr. Trump for influence over its own conservative audience since he stepped down as a regular guest on “Fox and Friends” to run for the White House.
This too necessitated some gymnastics. Before the debate, Fox commentators praised Mr. Trump’s choice to skip its own event as strategic and savvy, while the network reported the possibility that the current president might not debate in the general election, above the chyron “Hiding Biden.”
Most of the first hour was a Trump-free zone. The moderators, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, shook the barrel and the crabs had at each other. Among the biggest targets was Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur who has risen quickly among the not-Trumps. Former Vice President Mike Pence called him a “rookie”; Mr. Ramaswamy called his opponents “bought and paid for.”
The former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who short-circuited Marco Rubio in a 2016 debate, entered the race with the goal of hammering Mr. Trump over his attempts to overturn his loss in 2020. Initially, he went after Mr. Ramaswamy as the next best thing, saying that he “sounds like ChatGPT” and likening him to Barack Obama; Mr. Ramaswamy reminded Mr. Christie that the then-governor notoriously hugged Mr. Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, just before the 2012 election.
Around an hour in, Mr. Baier finally invoked Mr. Trump — “the elephant not in the room” — and his indictments, to the boos of the crowd. This led to the night’s most memorable visual, when the moderators asked for a show of hands from everyone who would support Mr. Trump as nominee if he were convicted at trial. The hand raise began with Mr. Ramaswamy and moved across the stage like a sluggish wave at a stadium, stopping at Mr. Christie.
The Trump segment was the liveliest of the night, both for the candidates and for members of the audience, who at one point tried to drown out Mr. Christie until Mr. Baier asked them to please let them “get through this section.”
This apologetic, I-guess-we-have-to-do-this approach to Jan. 6 was a disservice, if not a surprise given the audience pressures on Fox. Yes, the moderators focused on serious issues, including climate change, which is often absent at presidential debates. But if there was enough time to ask about the conservative country anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond” — in the very first question — there was enough time to talk in depth about an attack on the Capitol. When a faction of members and supporters of a party try to overturn a democratic election, debate moderators need to recognize that that’s a big issue for that party, whether the fans boo or not.
But Mr. Trump was not there to make his own noise, which left more room for one of the main goals of a first debate: to let candidates introduce themselves to a broader audience.
Or at least try to. Mr. Trump’s expected chief rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, was strangely DeMinimis, rattling off conservative bugbears (Fauci! Soros! Lockdowns!) but staying peripheral to much of the back-and-forth.
Mr. Pence and the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, on the other hand, were notably feisty. But if the night was an introduction contest, Mr. Ramaswamy won: hyped-up, bouncing, interrupting, finger-wagging, he got under several opponents’ skins, but it was his face that dominated the clip reels on cable news afterward.
He did all of that, however, while defending and effusively praising Mr. Trump, the very man he supposedly believes he should defeat for the nomination. It is a peculiar strategy, like trying to win a football game by blocking for your opponent because who knows? He might just fumble — or get taken off the field by the refs — and then you’d be close enough to pick up the ball.
For the night, however, it seemed to get much of the crowd on his side, including a post-debate focus group of Republicans convened by CNN. Which, if history is any guide, could be one way to get at the former president.
If anything gets Mr. Trump back to the debate stage, after all, it just might be watching someone else on TV, getting all the attention.