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Sunday's debate drew about 81-million

Preliminary estimates indicate that at least 81-million people watched Sunday night's 90-minute debate among the three presidential candidates _ and that doesn't include a couple million more who watched on cable and public broadcasting.

ABC's coverage of the debate, which averaged a 19.0 rating of the audience, led the three over-the-air networks in the Nielsen overnights in the 25 major markets (where ABC historically does well), compared with a 14.5 for NBC's coverage and a 4.6 for Fox, only 20 of whose affiliates carried the debates.

Neither Cable News Network nor C-Span will have audience figures until late this week; PBS said very preliminary estimates showed its debate coverage averaged a 3.4 in the nation's top five markets.

According to the Nielsen 25-city overnights, the Oakland-Toronto American League baseball playoff game that wiped out CBS News' chance to carry the debate, averaged an 8.8 between 4:15 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. while the National League playoff that followed immediately on the network did an 11.7 between 8:45 p.m. and 11:45 p.m.

Monday, CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who had to play the Maytag repairman Sunday night while rivals Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw and their news organizations shared the spotlight with President Bush, Gov. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, declined to talk about the matter Monday _ referring reporters to CBS News president Eric Ober, who was not available.

Rather had managed to maintain a sense of humor about the situation Sunday night as he waited in vain on the Campaign '92 set in New York for a break in the baseball action so CBS could join the debate coverage _ at one time joking that he would "never speak to Dennis Eckersley again" after the Oakland relief ace had failed to stop a Toronto rally in the ninth inning that led to extra innings.

Monday, he sounded somber in a brief conversation and CBS News staffers spoke of the extreme frustration felt by the division over the restrictions of the baseball contract.

Said one source: "Dan tried to make his point in Miami in 1987 and by now he's resigned to the fact that sports have become so important to the network. But that doesn't mean he likes it at all."

In September 1987 when Rather was in Miami to report on Pope John Paul II's historic visit, the production staff was told a U.S. Open tennis match would run over, delaying the start of the 6:30 Evening News broadcast. Angry over the delay, Rather stalked from the studio, unaware that sportscasters at the tournament had wrapped up the coverage. As a result some six minutes of dead air time passed before Rather resumed the newscast (a highly publicized absence that then-presidential candidate George Bush chose to bring up during an interview early in the 1988 campaign that led to bad feelings between the two).

CBS News could face a similar dilemma tonight, when the presidential debate from Richmond is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. If the Oakland-Toronto AL playoffs extend to a seventh game, CBS would be on the air from Toronto at 8:30 p.m.

The 81-million estimate by ABC News research is based, in part, on projections and audience patterns that developed in the 1988 debates. National results will be released Tuesday by A.C. Nielsen.