The American public is as ready for a female president as it was in the late '90s for a short, middle-aged, oft-arrested, whale-hugging, pro-nuclear-disarmament president.

"Commander in Chief" -- starring Geena Davis as a political independent who somehow winds up vice president to ultra-conservative Teddy Roosevelt Bridges, who dies but not before telling her to step down so the ultra-evil speaker of the House (Donald Sutherland) can be named to replace him, only she ignores him because that's what we women do and, honestly, what did he expect? -- copped 16.4 million viewers at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

This is virtually identical to the 16.9 million who in September '99 caught the first episode of "The West Wing," which supposedly starred Rob Lowe as the Oval Office hottie but really starred serial-arrestee/actor Martin Sheen as president of the United States.

ABC won Tuesday with its largest non-sports audience on the night in nearly two years, because "Commander in Chief" clocked the biggest drama-series launch on a Tuesday since "Dark Angel" debuted to 17.5 million viewers on Fox in fall 2000 -- and look at what that did for Jessica Alba's career.

It's also the third biggest new-series launch this fall.

The unveiling of "Commander in Chief" ranks behind last week's launch of CBS's "Criminal Minds," starring Mandy "Voice of an Angel" Patinkin as a guy who profiles killers, and about 60,000 viewers behind the kickoff of ABC's "Invasion," starring a bunch of people who play aliens' lab rats in a Florida town hit by a hurricane.

Bear in mind, both those shows launched off of super-big lead-in audiences provided by the season kickoffs of "CSI" and "Lost," respectively. "Criminal Minds" hung on to 70 percent of its lead-in and "Invasion" retained 68 percent.

Our Fantasy Female President, meanwhile, had to work much harder -- typical -- because she'd been stuck with a super-lame "According to Jim" season debut lead-in of just 8.1 million.

Here's a surprise: "Commander in Chief" was not the most watched show at 9 p.m. Tuesday in the Washington market.

It finished second, behind Fox's doc drama "House." Here in our fair city, "CiC" averaged 329,000 viewers to 422,000 for "House." So people in Washington are interested in something besides White House politics; they're also interested in strange terminal diseases.

In fact, when it comes to "CiC" ratings, Washington ranked 23 out of 53 metered markets. The show's No. 1 market was -- Cincinnati. Followed by Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Tulsa. Also in the top 10 were Detroit, Denver and Columbus, Ohio. Is Middle America more ready for a female president than the coasts? Or are people there more horrified and love to be scared?

Nationally, the "CiC" premiere drew other parallels to the unveiling of "The West Wing."

For instance, the median age of Tuesday's "Commander in Chief" episode was 54.7 years. The median age for viewers of the first "West Wing" was 50.7 years. Which, given that "West Wing" premiered six years ago, means they're probably pretty much the very same people.

Like "West Wing," "CiC" skewed sort of old; political shows usually do. "CiC" did its biggest rating and won its time slot among viewers 50 and older. That demographic rating also was virtually identical to that of the first "West Wing" episode.

The "West Wing" premiere audience was broader than that of "CiC," with bigger ratings in younger demographic groups.

Ironically, in Tuesday's 9 p.m. hour, "CiC" and "House" split the 25-54 audience. Women preferred to watch Geena Davis; men went with "House," which stars Hugh Laurie as a dysfunctionally cynical, completely rumpled, and yet somehow hot and brilliant doctor who diagnoses diseases no one else can figure out.

"House" won the race in the hour among 18-to-49-year-olds; that's the age bracket advertisers pay a premium to reach. And while "House" ranked No. 1 among teens, our Fantasy Female President finished a sad fifth in the teen race.

Geena Davis stars in ABC's Tuesday night drama "Commander in Chief," which got its best numbers in the red states of Middle America.