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Image: Sen. Barack Obama
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., steps off the plane in Memphis, Tenn. on Sept. 26.
updated 9/26/2008 4:36:03 PM ET 2008-09-26T20:36:03

After a two-day cliffhanger over whether their first debate would take place, John McCain and Barack Obama take aim at the ultimate record: most-watched presidential debate ever.

The standard was set in 1980, when 80.6 million people watched that campaign’s only debate between President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. TV audiences that big typically gather only once a year, for the Super Bowl.

Doubt over the debate even happening, which ended Friday when McCain said he would attend, probably heightened interest and reminded people that it’s on, said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

He predicted the 80 million mark will be topped.

“I was in the grocery store two hours ago and I heard three separate occurrences of people asking, ‘Is the debate happening tonight?”’ Thompson said. “People are buzzing about (it).”

There are three debates scheduled between Republican McCain and Democrat Obama. The potential vice presidents will debate Thursday.

“I’ll bet you that all three debates” break the record, said Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief Washington correspondent. “I really think people are interested right now.”

Americans have shown an intense interest in campaign coverage since the beginning. Still, people in television were startled earlier this month when three political speeches within two weeks — nomination acceptances by Obama, McCain and GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin — were each seen by more than 40 million people. Concern over the economy adds another layer of interest; Nielsen Media Research estimated 52.7 people watched President Bush’s address to the nation Wednesday.

ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and C-SPAN all planned to televise the debate. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

The most-watched debate since 1980 was the second of three between the first President Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, seen by just under 70 million people. The first debate in 2004 between President Bush and John Kerry was seen by 62.5 million, Nielsen said.

‘Every barroom will have it on’
The fact that it’s on a Friday night, when people often go out, might hold this year’s audience down. Nielsen doesn’t measure the audience in public places.

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“Every barroom will have it on, every airport,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “There will be a huge number beyond the detectable numbers. I think everyone is going to watch it.”

There was even talk of drinking games planned to help pass the time: one sip when Obama mentions “change,” another when McCain addresses “my friends.”

McCain had urged on Wednesday that the debate be put off to tend to the nation’s economic problems, but switched gears on Friday. Networks talked internally about contingency plans, but still sent staff to Oxford, Miss., assuming the debate would happen.

Even though foreign affairs was the announced topic, it was expected the economy would be touched upon.

Besides the candidates’ performance, Jim Lehrer’s role as moderator certainly is in focus — two media watchdogs this week released reports analyzing the questions asked by journalists during the 35 primary season debates (20 Democratic, 15 Republican).

Questions about candidates’ character — honesty and leadership rather than specific issues — made up 36 percent of the questions, according to the Culture and Media Institute of the Media Research Center. The conservative group detected no political bias in how these character questions were framed, but claimed Democrats tended to get more “softballs” than Republicans.

Meanwhile, the liberal Media Matters for America judged the primary debates “a disaster.” The group said one-third of the questions asked were non-substantive, about campaign gaffes, political tactics or personality. They also criticized the journalists for not asking enough about the economy.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who moderated five primary debates, said he understands what PBS’ Lehrer was going through in preparing for the debate. (After Lehrer, Schieffer, PBS’ Gwen Ifill and NBC’s Tom Brokaw are moderating the subsequent sessions, with Ifill handling the vice presidential forensic.)

“I certainly felt the historic enormity of what I was doing, and I felt that every second was precious and every question was precious,” Blitzer said. “I didn’t want to waste time.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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