NEW YORK — Fox News Channel's two-hour Republican presidential debate was halfway through when moderator Bret Baier said he wanted to take a brief moment to talk about “the elephant not in the room” — Donald Trump and his four criminal indictments.
Up until that point the former president, who skipped the debate and has a large lead in polls for the 2024 GOP nomination, had hardly been mentioned by his eight rivals on a Milwaukee stage on Wednesday.
The reluctance to talk about the topic was evident, but the 10 minutes when it was discussed included some of the debate's more electric moments.
When asked for a show of hands on how many would support Trump as the GOP nominee if he were convicted of a crime, six indicated they would. Two former governors, New Jersey's Chris Christie and Arkansas' Asa Hutchinson, were the exceptions.
The audience booed Christie for saying that Trump’s conduct should not be normalized. “Booing is allowed,” he said. “But it doesn’t change the truth.”
Baier and Fox colleague Martha MacCallum told Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis three times that he had ducked the question when, after being asked whether then-Vice President Mike Pence acted properly to resist Trump's request not to certify Joe Biden's presidential election victory, he said he wanted to talk about the future instead of the past.
So did Pence, until DeSantis said, “Mike did his duty. I've got no beef with him.”
“We spent an hour talking about policy,” Baier said to DeSantis. “Former President Trump is beating you by 30, 40 points in many polls. So it is a factor in the GOP primaries.”
After saying they had fulfilled a promise to spend a few questions on the topic, MacCallum sought to move on to another subject before being stopped by Pence.
“Can I speak on this issue?” he said.
The time spent on the topic and the audience’s booing of Christie spoke to the issue’s delicacy for both the candidates and Fox. A poll taken by The New York Times and Siena College last month found that 80% of people who cited Fox News as their top news source said the GOP needs to stand behind Trump in his criminal cases, including one in Georgia, where he is expected to surrender on Thursday.
MacCallum had telegraphed how Fox would handle it in an interview with The Associated Press last week, when she said it would be brought up, but, with so many other issues to talk about, “it’s certainly not going to be the lion’s share of the night.”
The Fox moderators struggled at times to keep control of the proceedings, chaotic by nature. After MacCallum asked, in the wake of the deadly Hawaiian wildfires, for a show of hands on which candidates believed human behavior is causing climate change, she was scolded by DeSantis.
“Look, we’re not schoolchildren,” DeSantis said, immediately hijacking the question. The moderators never succeeded in getting the candidates to fulfill her request.
There were a handful of adept follow-up questions: After South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott criticized government spending during the Biden administration, MacCallum pointed to his approvals of trillions of dollars in spending when Trump was president.
During a “lightning round” of queries, Christie was chagrined when MacCallum asked him about government investigations of UFOs.
“I get the UFO question?” he asked. “Come on, man.”
An estimate on how many people watched the debate is expected on Thursday afternoon.