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16.9 million viewers for rowdy Republican debate is 2nd biggest audience ever for Fox News

Republican presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and businessman Donald Trump argue during a Republican primary debate on Thursday at Fox Theatre in Detroit.

Republican presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and businessman Donald Trump argue during a Republican primary debate on Thursday at Fox Theatre in Detroit.

(Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

The raucous Republican primary debate gave Fox News its second largest audience ever on Thursday.

Nielsen data show an average of 16.9 million viewers tuned into the 11th meeting of the contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination held at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Only the first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential campaign - watched by 24 million viewers on Aug. 6 - delivered a larger audience for Fox News.

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The debate also featured a rematch of Trump and Fox News Channel anchor Megyn Kelly, whose questions angered the candidate during the Aug. 6 debate. Trump’s irritation with Kelly, whom he personally attacked in TV interviews and on social media, led to him sitting out the last Fox News Channel debate.

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Flanked by Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, Kelly remained tough on Trump, pressing him with details from the civil suit filed by former students of Trump University who have contended the mogul committed fraud.

The schoolyard insults between Sen. Marco Rubio and Trump also made the debate worthy of a PG-13 rating.

Ratings for the Republican primary debates have escalated after hitting a low on Jan. 14, when 11 million watched on Fox Business News. The Thursday telecast, airing from 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern time, is the fifth consecutive GOP debate to grow in audience.

The audience for Thursday’s event ranks fourth overall in the 2016 campaign season, ranking behind the debates held on Aug. 6 on Fox News, and Sept. 16 (23 million) and Dec. 15 (18.1 million) on CNN. All four were Republican candidate showdowns. The largest audience for a Democratic primary debate was 15.45 million viewers on Oct. 13.

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Fox News also set a new high for concurrent live streams of a primary debate, with 1.489 million, according to Omniture and Akamai. The debate was available for free streaming on FoxNews.com.

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