Palin-Biden debate sets TV ratings record

Republican vice presidential nominee Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) shake hands and smile at the end of their vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri October 2, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Rubenstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden drew nearly 70 million U.S. television viewers, far more than the John McCain-Barack Obama bout, making it the most watched vice presidential debate ever, according to ratings issued on Friday.

The television audience for the Republican Palin and Democrat Biden also was the biggest for any nationally televised political debate in 16 years, going back to a face-off among then-President George H.W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot.

Their three-way match in October 1992, like the Palin-Biden contest, pulled in 69.9 million viewers, Nielsen Media Research said.

Nielsen analyst Anne Elliot suggested that nearly 70 million viewers in 1992 stands as a bigger achievement given there were roughly 60 million fewer potential viewers in the United States to draw from then.

The tally for the Palin-Biden bout in St. Louis on Thursday night easily eclipsed the 52.4 million viewers who tuned in last Friday for the first debate between the Republican presidential nominee McCain and Democrat Obama.

The most watched televised presidential debate on record was the 1976 bout between President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, which drew 80.6 million viewers.

The Palin-Biden debate still earns a place in the Nielsen record books as the most watched ever between vice presidential candidates, eclipsing the old benchmark held by the first woman on a major-party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, and the Republican incumbent at the time, George H.W. Bush. Their showdown in 1984 averaged 56.7 million viewers.

A larger-than-usual TV 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.

Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bill Trott