What use does a billionaire have for a kingmaker? It's a question media watchers and political junkies are gnawing on like a terrier worrying a rat, as Donald Trump continues his churlish and improbable bid for the Republican nomination. Does the billionaire who pays his own freight actually require the blessing of the news network that admirers and detractors alike believe serves as a gatekeeper to the GOP?
After bailing on Fox News Channel's Jan. 28 GOP debate, the frontrunner suffered the first significant reversal of his campaign, losing the Iowa caucus to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and barely holding off Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for second.
Speaking to reporters in New Hampshire as his next test loomed, Mr. Trump acknowledged that skipping the debate likely contributed to his defeat. "That could have been with the debate," Mr. Trump said. "I think some people were disappointed that I didn't go into the debate."
While ditching out may have sent the wrong message to Iowa -- Mr. Trump won only 13% of voters who made their decision after the debate, while Sen. Rubio took 31% -- the anti-establishment candidate also faced a strong turnout by staunch conservatives and evangelicals. But FNC wasn't having any of that. After the results came in, network pundits repeatedly suggested that Mr. Trump's absence led to his also-ran finish. "Trump missed his opportunity to make his closing arguments, and it looks like he's paying a price for it here," said FNC contributor Kirsten Powers.
Then again, Mr. Trump may have fared even worse if he had taken the debate stage. FNC moderator Megyn Kelly, the object of much of Mr. Trump's petulant ire, deftly used video clips to illustrate how Sens. Cruz and Rubio have a tendency to talk out of both sides of their mouths. Neither pol held up well under Ms. Kelly's interrogation, and one can only imagine how the mercurial real estate mogul would have fared.
If it's too soon to make a definitive judgment on whether Donald Trump needs Fox News more than Fox News needs Donald Trump, the events in Iowa suggested that neither entity will be so careless as to ever again take the other for granted. But FNC's Iowa debate was its second most-watched program in its 20-year history, and advertisers thus far are very pleased with their investment. That's a win. After losing in Iowa, Mr. Trump appeared on Sean Hannity's show to spin the numbers and swear that everything had been smoothed over with Fox. As it stands, the score is Fox News 1, Donald J. Trump 0. Check again after Tuesday's results in New Hampshire.