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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sarah Palin's televised showdown with Joe Biden drew nearly 70 million U.S. viewers, far surpassing last week's John McCain-Barack Obama face-off and ranking as the most watched vice presidential debate ever.
Palin, the Republican governor of Alaska, and Biden, the Democratic senator from Delaware, also drew the biggest audience of any nationally televised political debate in 16 years, going back to a matchup among then-President George H.W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot, according to ratings issued on Friday.
The three-way debate in October 1992, like the Palin-Biden contest on Thursday, pulled in 69.9 million viewers, Nielsen Media Research said.
Nielsen analyst Anne Elliot suggested that nearly 70 million viewers in 1992 represented a bigger achievement, given there were roughly 60 million fewer potential viewers in the United States then.
The tally for the Palin-Biden contest in St. Louis easily eclipsed the 52.4 million viewers who tuned in last Friday for this year's first presidential debate between McCain, an Arizona senator, and Obama, a senator from Illinois.
The Public Broadcasting Service, whose audience is not counted by Nielsen, estimated its network added 3.5 million viewers to the total for Palin and Biden, versus 2.6 million for McCain-Obama.
A larger-than-usual audience was expected for Palin and Biden going into their debate given the questions raised about the Alaska governor's readiness and the widespread lampooning of her previous appearances in the media.
Snap polls by CBS and CNN said most viewers thought Biden, who curbed his tendency to be verbose and maintained a respectful tone toward Palin, won the debate. But Republicans were cheered by Palin's confident performance.
The most watched televised presidential debate on record is the 1980 showdown between Democratic President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, which drew 80.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
Before 1976, Nielsen tracked debate audiences according to household ratings -- based on the percentage of homes with TV sets that tune into a particular broadcast.
By that measure, the historic first three matchups in 1960 between Democrat John Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon rank as the top three presidential debates, garnering household ratings ranging from 59.1 to 61.0.
By comparison, the Carter-Reagan debate ranks fourth, with a 58.9 rating. Palin and Biden scored a 41.7.
The Palin-Biden contest still earns a place in the Nielsen record books as the most viewed between vice presidential candidates, breaking the record held by the debate between Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a major-party ticket, and Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush. Their showdown in 1984 averaged 56.7 million viewers.
The Ferraro-Bush debate still holds the vice presidential record for household ratings, with a 43.6, but that was in the days of just three major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and
The Palin-Biden debate was carried live by 11 commercial networks measured by Nielsen, not including PBS.
Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney