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Donald Trump may have been conspicuously absent, but Thursday night’s Republican debate on Fox News Channel nevertheless scored a 8.4 rating and 12.5 million viewers, according to early numbers from Nielsen. That’s higher than the returns for the last Republican debate Jan. 14 on sister net Fox Business Network, and marks the No. 2 telecast in FNC history.
Meanwhile, all the other cable news networks were covering Trump’s competing event in Iowa, during which Trump boasted he raised $5 million for veteran’s charities. Those other cable news networks, neither of which blanketed the time period with the event, averaged a respective 1.76 million viewers (CNN) and 1.02 million viewers (MSNBC) between 9 and 11 p.m. ET.
In the news demo of adults 25-54, FNC averaged 3.5 million viewers.
Fox News Channel still holds the record for debate ratings; 24 million tuned in to watch the first debate last August, after which Trump began targeting the network and anchor Megyn Kelly on social media and in myriad TV interviews. The last Republican debate on sister net Fox Business Network on Jan. 14, was watched by 11 million viewers.
Moderated by Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, Kelly opened the debate from the Iowa Events Center by addressing “the elephant not in the room” and asking Cruz what kind of message Trump’s absence sends to Iowa voters.
Cruz did not take the opportunity to bash his rival, instead opting for an attempt at humor: “I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly, and Ben you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way…”
“I kind of miss Donald Trump,” Jeb Bush added. “I wish he were here.”
The seventh debate in a wildly unpredictable GOP contest was marked by days of headlines over Trump’s defection after a public dustup with Fox News when the Republican frontrunner restarted his (one-sided) social media feud with Kelly days before the debate.
But many political insiders also surmised that Trump sought to avoid direct confrontations about his past statements, particularly his support of abortion. Super PACs have for days been running attack ads in which Trump declares in a 1999 interview that he is “very pro-choice in every respect.”
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