By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Forget about financial reform, Obamacare and job creation. The biggest newsmaker in Wednesday night's presidential debate may have been Big Bird, the lovable "Sesame Street" character whose public TV funding Republican candidate Mitt Romney vowed to end.
Romney told debate moderator Jim Lehrer, whose "PBS News Hour" program is also subsidized by the Public Broadcasting Service, that if elected to the White House he would end federal PBS funding - long a goal for some U.S. conservatives.
"I'm sorry, Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But ... I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for," Romney said after Lehrer asked him to state how he would differ from President Barack Obama in tackling the federal deficit.
Romney's vow of tough love for the 8-foot-2 tall yellow character drew ridicule from Obama on Thursday.
"When (Romney) was asked what he'd actually do to cut the deficit and reduce spending, he said he'd eliminate funding for public television. That was his answer," Obama, who faces Romney in the November 6 election, told a rally in Denver.
"I mean, thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird! It's about time," Obama added sarcastically. "We didn't know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit."
It was not the first time that Romney had taken aim at Big Bird. He told supporters at a campaign stop last December that PBS funding was doomed under a Romney administration and "Big Bird is going to have to have advertisements."
Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the long-running children's educational show "Sesame Street," declined to enter the fray, saying on its blog: "We do not comment on campaigns, but we're happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird."
The character of Big Bird first appeared on the show 43 years ago and is voiced by Caroll Spinney.
Sherrie Rollins Westin, executive vice president of Sesame Workshop, said in an interview on CNN on Thursday that "Sesame Street" receives only a small portion of its funding from PBS, with the bulk coming from philanthropy, product licensing and corporate underwriting and sponsorship.
"When they always sort of trot out Big Bird and say, 'We're going to kill Big Bird,' that actually is misleading because Sesame Street will be here," Westin said.
"Big Bird lives on," she added.
Romney's Big Bird remarks were flying high in the social media world.
Twitter reported that there were more than a quarter million Tweets mentioning Big Bird. And Twitter users created accounts including @FiredBigBird, @SadBigBird and @BigBirdRomney. A Facebook fan page named Big Bird For President pulled in more than 7,000 "likes."
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Will Dunham)