The nationally televised U.S. vice-presidential debate Thursday night has become the most-watched in history, Nielsen Media Research reported Friday.

With 66.9 million U.S. viewers, the debate between Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his Republican opponent Sarah Palin handily beat the previous record of 56.7 million viewers.

That record was set in 1984 by Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a major-party ticket, and the Republican incumbent at the time, George Bush.

The audience tally for the Palin-Biden debate also easily eclipsed the 52.4 million viewers who tuned in for the first faceoff between presidential nominees Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama last Friday.

Two more presidential debates are scheduled for Oct. 7 and Oct. 15.

Meanwhile, two national polls of Americans who watched the U.S. vice-presidential debate and are uncommitted voters showed that more of them thought Biden turned in the best performance.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey found 51 per cent of those polled after Thursday night's debate in St. Louis, Mo., said the Delaware senator did the best job, while 36 per cent said the same about the Alaska governor.

The survey of 611 adult Americans had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Respondents said Palin —- who had to recover from some bumbling media interview performances —- was the more likable of the pair, scoring 54 per cent support, compared to Biden's 36 per cent.

The Republican candidate also exceeded expectations, according to 84 per cent of the viewers who were surveyed.

CBS News and Knowledge Networks conducted a cross-country poll of 473 uncommitted voters who watched the debate and found 46 per cent said Biden won the debate, compared to 21 per cent for Palin. Thirty-three per cent said it was a tie.

The margin of error for the sampling was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

The flash polls conducted by CBS and CNN reflected trends in overall opinion polls toward Obama conducted over the past couple of weeks.

Recent polls show Obama with a small but perceptible lead. Before the vice-presidential debate, McCain had decided to pull out of Michigan, conceding the state to the Democrats.

Palin on the side of 'Joe six-packs'

U.S. media pundits said Palin returned to her folksy style in the debate, throwing in lines that included "you betcha." She told the audience she's not a Washington insider, but is fighting for "hockey moms and Joe six-packs."

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'Biden is obviously better equipped to serve as V.P. with a proper understanding of what that role involves.'

—Brian Felushko

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She didn't always answer questions, but turned that into a point of pride, saying she may not be answering the way Biden or the moderator wanted to hear, but that "I'm going to talk straight to the American people."

Biden, who was first  elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 at age 29,  was described by media analysts as respectful of Palin, governor of Alaska since 2006, as the two sparred over taxes, energy policy and the Iraq war. He steered clear of any hint of condescension and instead focused on McCain's record.

After the two met, Palin asked her opponent, "Hey, can I call you Joe?’’ Throughout the debate, Biden consistently referred to her as Gov. Palin.

Biden sought to make McCain out as a straight-ahead successor to an unpopular President George W. Bush. "He voted four out of five times for George Bush's budget, which put us a half-trillion dollars in debt and over $4 trillion in debt since he got here," he said of McCain.

Palin merely accused Biden of reciting the past rather than looking to the future. "Americans are cravin' that straight talk" that McCain offers, she said.

Biden calls Cheney 'dangerous'

When the question came to the powers of the job they both seek, Biden accused current Vice-President Dick Cheney of believing himself part of the legislative branch of the U.S. government.

"Vice-President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice-president we’ve had probably in American history,’’ Biden said.

Both candidates offered stories of their personal lives and struggles. Palin told the country that being a mom, and being concerned about one son in Iraq and a special needs child at home, she understands worries about tuition bills and health insurance.

"We know what other Americans are going through as they sit around the kitchen table and try to figure out how are they going to pay out-of-pocket for health care,’’ she said.

Biden said he, too, has known hardship and became emotional when recalling the death of his first wife and infant daughter in a car crash in 1972.

"The notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone,’’ he said, "[that] I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to — is going to make it — I understand.’’

He appeared to be fighting tears as he spoke.

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters