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Palin draws 37 million viewers, just shy of Obama

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, unknown to most Americans a week ago, nearly matched Barack Obama’s record TV audience with her feisty speech on Wednesday accepting the Republican nomination for vice president, topping 37 million U.S. viewers.

The 38.4 million viewers averaged by Obama as he accepted the Democratic nomination for president last Thursday in Denver is believed to stand as the biggest commercial TV audience ever for a single night of a U.S. political convention, Nielsen said on Thursday.

Riding a wave of public fascination with her meteoric political rise and the intrigue surrounding her personal life, Palin’s Nielsen tally of 37.2 million viewers in her prime-time television debut fell just shy of Obama’s total.

But she appears to have set a new Republican benchmark by easily surpassing the 27.6 million viewers drawn by President George W. Bush at the end of the Republican National Convention in 2004, when he was nominated for a second term, a Nielsen analyst told Reuters.

Palin’s speech, as she went on the attack against Obama and cast herself as a political reformer, also drew a far bigger audience than Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, a Delaware senator, who averaged 24 million viewers with his acceptance speech last Wednesday.

The Nielsen totals do not include the Public Broadcasting Service, which estimates Obama and Palin each drew roughly 4 million viewers on its network.

The high tune-in for Palin was no doubt bolstered by the curiosity factor surrounding the first-term Alaska governor, who was thrust from obscurity onto the national stage last Friday when she was named John McCain’s surprise pick for a running mate.

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Despite a flurry of recent disclosures about her past political and personal intrigues, including news that her unmarried, teenage daughter is pregnant, Palin was heartily received by Republican convention delegates as she made her national prime-time TV debut.

“Many more people watched that speech than normally watch speeches for conventions,” said Robert Thompson, a media scholar at Syracuse University. “People made a point to tune in to see who is this mystery woman, who not only has been nominated to run as vice president but now also is part of all these delicious stories.”

Her address in St. Paul, Minnesota, marked the high point of a Republican convention scaled back on its first day, Monday, as Hurricane Gustav threatened the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The enthusiasm and TV audience she generated raised the possibility that her performance could even upstage McCain, who was scheduled to accept the Republican nomination as president on Thursday night.

Her appearance dwarfed Day 2 of this week’s Republican convention, which drew 21.5 million viewers across the three major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- and three leading cable news outlets, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC.

By comparison, NBC averaged 27.7 million viewers in prime time during the Olympics in Beijing, and 34.9 million for the most watched night of the Summer Games, the opening ceremonies. And “American Idol” averaged 28.1 million viewers last season.

Editing by Sandra Maler and Todd Eastham