(CNN) - Monday night's CNN/Congressional Black Caucus Institute Debate was the most watched primary-season faceoff in cable news history, according to early Nielsen data.
Nearly 5 million viewers tuned in to see the three major Democratic presidential candidates battle it out on-stage in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The historic 2008 campaign – with too-close-to-call races in both the Democratic and Republican parties – has drawn unprecedented public interest.
And the candidates’ final meeting before the state’s critical first-in-the-South Democratic primary this Saturday was one of the toughest to date, with heated exchanges all three White House hopefuls - and a no-holds-barred debate format that made for on-stage fireworks.
The forum’s toughest words were between frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, meeting on the same stage after weeks of daily battles waged over the nation's airwaves, and on the front pages.
On the eve of the debate, Obama told an interviewer that he felt as though he were running against both the New York senator and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, whose near-daily attacks on the Illinois senator's record have made headlines throughout the early-voting contests.
The Democratic presidential rivals crossed swords on stage Monday night when Obama accused both Clintons of deliberately distorting his record.
"Now, this, I think, is one of the things that's happened during the course of this campaign - that there's a set of assertions made by Sen. Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate," said Obama.
"That is something that I hear all across the country. So when Sen. Clinton says - or President Clinton - says that I wasn't opposed to the war from the start, or says it's a fairy tale that I opposed the war, that is simply not true. ..."
Clinton immediately fought back: "But I do think that your record and what you say does matter. And when it comes to a lot of the issues that are important in this race, it is sometimes difficult to understand what Sen. Obama has said, because as soon as he is confronted on it, he says that's not what he meant."
The sparring continued, almost unabated, through most of the forum. "Anyone who thinks that this race is not personal wasn't watching tonight," said CNN's Candy Crowley Monday night.
John Edwards, who is running a distant third in his birth state of South Carolina in most recent polls, tried to take advantage of the verbal combat between the two - teaming with one of his opponents, then the other, as he went on the attack in a bid to steal the spotlight during the duo's night-long fight.
This is the third time in a little over two months that CNN has broken the debate ratings record: the network’s November 28 Republican YouTube Debate and November 15 Democratic Primary Debate at UNLV are the second- and third-highest rated in cable news history.
The next CNN Democratic debate will take place in the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles next Thursday, January 31. Their GOP counterparts will meet in a CNN Republican primary debate next Wednesday, January 30, at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, co-sponsored by the Reagan Library. Both events are also co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and Politico.com.
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