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Here's why Clay will win

Here's why Clay will win -- In the winner-take-all finale, Clay shines while Ruben falters for the first time. Jessica Shaw was there live, and she explains what happened

Clay Aiken, American Idol

Here’s why Clay will win

Okay, that was so not the finale I was expecting. And not just because I thought Paul Anka was dead. (Little did we know he’s been hiding away penning Bar Mitzvah-style lyrics to classic songs!) Didn’t you sort of think Ruben would come in tonight and rock the house with his little velvet teddy bear moves and Grand Canyon-sized smile? And didn’t it seem like Clay would be all show-tuney and maybe forget a line or two along the way?

Well, as far as I could tell (that would be from row D, seat 3 in section 18, thank you very much. Yes, I officially have the best job on the planet), Clay owned the night. You heard it here first: Clay is the next American Idol.

Considering how steady and flawless Ruben has been all competition, it shocked the hell out of me that he choked on the last night. Lord only knows why he chose to sing ”House Is Not a Home,” a song that in ”American Idol”-land now officially belongs to Tamyra Gray. His rendition was fine, but hardly a goosebump-inducing situation. Only Simon was willing to make the call that it wasn’t ”the best performance we’ve heard.”

From that point on, you could see Ruben’s nerves continuously dripping right down his face. Frankly, I was sort of worried he was going to slip and wipe out in a pool of his own sweat. Simon had never spoken badly of big Ru before that moment.

”Imagine” was a little better, though Ruben’s face registered such serious pain, I thought Ryan was going to have to attempt CPR on live TV. Plus, it was sort of an easy song. (And Randy called ”Here, There, Everywhere” – with all those ridiculously high notes – ”safe”? I think not!). What can I say about ”Flying Without Wings,” big Ru’s big finale? He sounded great, the choir rocked, but Kimberley could have belted out that song just as well, if not better. Still, the judges seemed to love that performance. Randy gave the ol? standing ovation. ”It’s the church of Ruben!” Paula said, meaning to give a compliment. And Simon, who’s been Ruben’s No. 1 supporter all along gushed ”That was fantastic. You saved the best for last.”

I sort of wish Ruben and Clay had to sing the same songs, like Kelly and Justin had to last year. Even though it was abundantly clear that Kelly was the greater talent, you didn’t know just how superior she was until you heard her rendition of ”A Moment Like This” next to his. What would Ruben have sounded like singing ”This Is the Night”? We’ll never know.

Even though the judges seemed to hate Clay’s original, I thought it was pretty damn genius. (I’m almost sure Paula may have agreed with me. ”You found a matrix of a song,” she said. Was that some weird cross-Fox promotion? Will she ever make sense?) Clay could have used a little less David Copperfield backlighting, but his voice blew everyone in section 18 away. And we had some serious Ruben fans at the beginning.

When Ryan said Clay would be doing a Sir Paul song, I was sort of hoping it would be ”Blackbird” or ”Hey Jude.” ”Here, There, Everywhere” was, as Simon said, ”very pretty,” but the entire audience spent that song terrified that Clay’s voice would crack everytime he went falsetto.

But all five songs before Clay’s finale didn’t mean a thing. ”Bridge Over Troubled Water” was by far the song of the season. ”I think that performance could win you the competition,” Simon, who has clearly been championing Ruben, begrudgingly said. And you might hate Simon, but let’s face it, the guy is always right.

So what to do now? A full 24 hours until we find out. It all comes down to who’s going to inherit Kimberley?s fans. Fans of plus-sized performers will go Ruben, but all those who dug Kimmy’s major vocal range might hang with Clay. Some voters might feel sorry for Ruben’s subpar showing tonight and do the whole moral-support dial-up. And there’s got to be at least a few hundred people turned off by Clay’s odd wiggly finger move urging the audience to vote for contestant 2. For sure, it’s going to be close. I think we’re headed for a serious Red State/Blue State situation. They’ll split the South. Coasts may go Ruben, but heartland is all Clay. I’m hating Florida already.

Who do you think is going to win? Post your comment, and we’ll publish the best ones in our Thursday ”American Idol” column on