(CBS News) There was a clear winner in Wednesday's presidential debate -- at least when it comes to getting attention. Mitt Romney used public television star Big Bird to make a point about spending that triggered an avalanche of criticism.
Romney said during the debate, "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too (Jim Lehrer). But I'm not going to -- I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."
It was not the first time PBS has been targeted. But it was, perhaps, the most prominent platform. Seconds after Romney uttered those words, Twitter nearly tumbled over. At one point, 17,000 Big Bird tweets were published per minute, which factored into a big night for the social media site. Twitter said the debate was the most tweeted-about political event in U.S. history.
Ari Fleischer, press secretary to President George W. Bush, tweeted, "Big Bird needs to ask Dora the Explorer how she manages 2live without taxpayer money. Try it Big Bird. You'll be just fine."
Comedienne Joan Rivers wrote, "Attention @PBS
The post was accompanied by a photo of herself in a feather boa coat.
President Obama did not pounce directly during the debate. But he did Thursday on the trail, saying, "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 ... I mean, thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird! It's about time. We didn't know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit."
And last night, the late night shows had fun with Romney's words on the bird too. Jon Stewart said, "(Expletive) fired Big Bird."
For years, conservatives have accused the organization of having a liberal bias, arguing its federal funds aren't justified. PBS chief executive officer Paula Kerger responded, saying, "We are clearly as a country facing such significant challenges, but to talk about PBS as the solution to our budget issues to me is unbelievable."
The official Sesame Street Twitter feed, speaking as Big Bird, was more coy, saying: "My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?"
The Sesame Street Twitter feed later published this tweet: "We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. We do not comment on campaigns, but we're happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird!"
As is still evident online even Friday, though, dozens of memes and satirical photos are showing just how divisive a docile children's character can be.
Watch Jeff Glor's report in the video above.