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NEW YORK — CNN’s Tuesday night debate averaged 15.3 million viewers, easily making it the highest-rated Democratic debate ever.

The total viewer number was much lower than the totals for both recent Republican debates, but there was still a surprising surge of interest in Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb’s first time together on stage.

The 15.3 million total far exceeded most expectations, including among CNN executives.

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For comparison’s sake, the previous Democratic debate record was set in 2008, when Clinton and Barack Obama squared off in prime time on ABC. That debate had 10.7 million viewers.

Heading into Tuesday night, there was unanimous agreement that the total audience would be lower than the 25 million who tuned in for Fox’s Republican debate on August 6. That debate — fueled by Donald Trump — shattered all previous primary debate records.

The Republican rematch on CNN September 16 averaged more than 23 million viewers, essentially confirming that the GOP debates are the highest-rated new “show” of the fall TV season.

CNN executives said the Republican and Democratic debates were “apples and oranges” and that they expected ratings for the Clinton-Sanders face-off to be on par with past Democratic debates.

But they outperformed. “This was the sixth highest non-sports cable telecast on record,” a CNN press release said.

CNN’s Internet streaming data during the debate also demonstrated a lot of curiosity about the first Democratic forum of the season.

The network’s live stream peaked at 980,000 concurrent live streams around 10:20 pm ET, a CNN spokesman said.

That means nearly one million homes were watching simultaneously, surpassing the totals for Trump and Co.

The network’s GOP debate on September 16 had peaked with 921,000 concurrent streams.

The #DemDebate hashtag also trended atop Twitter and Facebook’s leaderboards throughout the evening.