The Fix’s Sean Sullivan reported early on the unexpected mention of Big Bird in the first presidential debate:

Sesame Street character Big Bird’s name came up at Wednesday night’s first presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

As Romney noted what entities he would stop funding, he mentioned the president’s health care law, then added that he would also stop a subsidy to PBS.

He said to moderator Jim Lehrer, who works for PBS: “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to the stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

The AP delved into the social media reaction:

As Republican Mitt Romney pledged to cut funding to PBS — adding, “I like PBS, I love Big Bird” — commenters on Twitter leaped to the defense of their favorite “Sesame Street” characters. Big Bird was a major Twitter trend throughout the night, while Oscar the Grouch and Bert and Ernie also featured. Twitter said that shortly after Romney’s remarks, users were posting 17,000 tweets per minute mentioning Big Bird. A spoof Twitter account, @firedbigbird, quickly won thousands of followers, while others shared a jokey, doctored photo showing the character posing with a cardboard sign pleading for work.

Why the proposed cuts to public television? Romney’s comment came during a segment concerning what to do about the federal deficit. The remarks below came immediately before he said PBS and Big Bird would not pass his test as critical enough to “[borrow] money from China to pay for it:”

ROMNEY: Good. I’m glad you raised that, and it’s a -- it’s a critical issue. I think it’s not just an economic issue, I think it’s a moral issue. I think it’s, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they’re going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives.

And the amount of debt we’re adding, at a trillion a year, is simply not moral.

So how do we deal with it? Well, mathematically, there are three ways that you can cut a deficit. One, of course, is to raise taxes. Number two is to cut spending. And number is to grow the economy, because if more people work in a growing economy, they’re paying taxes, and you can get the job done that way.

The presidents would … prefer raising taxes. I understand. The problem with raising taxes is that it slows down the rate of growth. And you could never quite get the job done. I want to lower spending and encourage economic growth at the same time.

What things would I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it.

For The Washington Post’s Dan Zak, the moment was a blip of relatability in a stream of wonkish banter:

For any informed citizen with a balanced-to-gluttonous media diet, this first economy-focused debate at the University of Denver played like a highlight reel of this eternal, infernal campaign: Percentages were repeated, deficits were re-tabulated and “trillions” were tossed around.

The utter wonkiness made for brain-bruising television. So for these 90 minutes, the unwonks of the world had to divine answers from vibe and optics. Former governor Romney was generally fluid and poised in his speech, while President Obama halted and hurdled his way through his sentences, often casting his eyes down during his opponent’s time, occasionally breaking into a smug-seeming smile.

Much of America tunes in to see who whiffs or blunders, to take shots of tequila (“Let me be clear”? Drink!), to parse the performances into byte-size visuals or sounds, to pounce on Thursday’s meme (which will be Big Bird, to whom Romney paid lip service when talking about cutting PBS funding). We watch to watch our other screens: Our Twitter feeds and their cascades of wryness were more entertaining than the candidates’ talk of deductions and exemptions.

The Fix’s Aaron Blake singled out Big Bird as an example of a near-stumble for Romney in his column this morning, titled ‘Six Reasons Mitt Romney won the debate:’

6. Romney avoided a stumble: Romney’s campaign has been colored by the occasional gaffe which shows the candidate to be out of touch or just plain awkward. There were a couple iffy moments on that count (Big Bird, anyone?), but the GOP nominee’s performance was largely gaffe-free. Without a “47 percent” or “I’m not concerned about the very poor” moment, Romney allowed for the post-debate analysis to focus on other things, which is what he needs.

The jab at the Sesame Street mainstay got him on to the Fix’s Winners and Losers list – in the minus column.

Big Bird:  Mitt Romney may love the big yellow bird but he told America he would get rid of funding for PBS if he was president. Whither Elmo?

Read more on the presidential debate at PostPolitics:

Mitt Romney goes on the offensive

Analysis: Romney finds his voice on economy

Factchecking the first presidential debate of 2012