Barack Obama, John McCain

Anthony Jacobs/Getty Images

No Sarah Palin, no problem.

John McCain and Barack Obama did pretty well on their own last night, with overnight ratings for their second presidential debate up 21 percent over the first faceoff, Nielsen Media Research said.

The 90-minute, town-hall-styled contest was watched by a combined 38.1 million on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. In all, 11 networks aired the debate live.

Last week's vice presidential debate between Obama running mate Joe Biden and Saturday Night Live sensation Palin scored a whopping 73 million viewers, final numbers showed.

McCain-Obama II shouldn't be as big as Biden-Palin, but it might not be far off. In the early going, it's running only 6 percent behind Biden-Palin's overnight ratings.

Last night's debate played best in Nashville, which hosted the sparring contest over health care, Iraq and which bills "that one," as McCain once referenced Obama, voted for in the Senate. Among the top TV markets, it played weakest in West Coast cities such as Los Angeles and Portland, where the debate began during the rushing-home hour of 6 p.m.

McCain and Obama have one more opportunity to horn in on the prime-time schedule: Oct. 15, with their third and final debate.

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