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Palin-Biden debate appears to set ratings record

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The nationally televised debate between Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden appears likely to rank as the most highly rated matchup ever between U.S. vice presidential candidates, early Nielsen Media Research figures showed on Friday.

Preliminary Nielsen data shows the 90-minute sparring session on Thursday in St. Louis drew an average household rating of 45.0 -- the percentage of all homes that were tuned to the debate -- in the nation’s 55 largest metropolitan areas.

Nielsen said it expected to release final national ratings and a tally of individual viewers later in the day.

But the early figure far surpasses the corresponding preliminary 33.2 rating garnered by last Friday’s first debate between the two presidential nominees, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.

They ended up with a Nielsen national audience of 52.4 million U.S. viewers, so the final Palin-Biden tally is certain to easily eclipse that.

In fact, if the latest numbers hold up, Thursday’s debate will be the most highly rated ever between vice presidential candidates, eclipsing the old record held by the first woman on a major-party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, and the Republican incumbent at the time, George H.W. Bush.

The Palin-Biden bout also appears likely to stand as the most watched of any nationally televised political debate in 16 years, going back to a three-way match in 1992 that included then-President George H.W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot.

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 towards Palin, won the debate.

Editing by Eric Walsh