Does Mitt Romney really want to see the back of Big Bird? Probably not. But Twitter thinks he does.
Credit: Stan Honda

In Wednesday night's opening presidential debate, Mitt Romney resisted all attempts to steer him onto economic policy and instead descended into a rabid, profanity-laced diatribe about learning through fun, the letter G, the number 9 and anything – anything – that's large, yellow and teaches children their alphabets.

No, he didn't, but Twitter seems to think he did.

Romney's pledge to cut a government subsidy to PBS, the public television network that has aired Sesame Street since 1970, combined with a throwaway reference to the show's beloved Big Bird, inadvertently produced a top-trending hashtag, dozens of fake Twitter accounts, and the internet's new favorite meme.

Here's what Romney actually said:

"I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. [...] I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you [moderator and PBS employee Jim Lehrer] too. But I'm not going to [...] keep on spending money on things, to borrow money from China to pay for it."

Within minutes of his remarks, #BigBird was one of the fastest rising trends on Twitter. According to the Associated Press, at one point the site registered 17,000 tweets per minute mentioned the yellow featherball (Oscar the Grouch and Bert and Ernie also got plenty of shout-outs).

Meanwhile newly created accounts like @FiredBigBird (since suspended by Twitter) attracted tens of thousands of followers by posting pictures of the character carrying the sign: "Will work for food."

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Now, there are some grounds for debate here: PBS receives a minute percentage of the federal budget (in 2010, just 0.00014 percent of the total budget went to the Center for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund PBS, NPR and other public media, according to Politico), so cutting its subsidy seems frankly pointless weighed against the tax cuts Romney has said he'll introduce.

"This is not about the budget, it has to be about politics," said PBS CEO Paula Kerger, invited onto CNN Thursday morning to address the controversy. If government funding to the service were cut, she said, it wouldn't be Big Bird out of a job, it would be the staff at PBS's local affiliate stations, who can't hope to generate a fraction of the merchandising revenue that Sesame Street can.

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But then, #PBSLocalAffiliateStations isn't quite as catchy. It was the image of Romney stomping all over something so wholesome as Big Bird that captured tweeters' imagination.

And even if that image wasn't exactly accurate, as GlobalPost's Jean MacKenzie pointed out, it was the only thing from last night's debate that did capture anyone's imagination.

"The debate was such a snooze for so many of the viewers that the line that will doubtless be remembered the longest had little to do with policy," MacKenzie wrote last night, adding prophetically, "a 'Save Big Bird' campaign cannot be far behind."

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And how. Here's our pick of the best #BigBird tweets.

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