The latest vote may have only separated them by 2 percent, but experts agree that the "teddy bear of love," Ruben Studdard, is the odds-on favorite to beat out doe-eyed country boy Clay Aiken in the second "American Idol" competition.
Don't bust out your 205 jersey just yet, though, because the competition is much closer than even our panel expected.
"Everyone here is voting for Ruben," said Melinda Bell, vice president of Johnny Wright Entertainment Group, the management home of Britney Spears, 'NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Boyz II Men. "He has the showmanship and the voice, but also something else that is marketable and is not around right now. Name one person around now who has that Luther Vandross quality, that smooth voice and demeanor. No one else can compete."
Bell praised Aiken as well, calling him "very good," but she said Studdard is the kind of singer whose voice people fall in love with and that his more soulful delivery helps distinguish him from the poppier leanings of last year's winner, Kelly Clarkson.
Ruben may have become America's sweetheart over the course of the show, but Clay was the odds-on favorite when the series began, according to Michael Maerz, chief bet manager for Antigua-based Intertops.com, an online gaming site. "We've been offering odds since the show started last year, and we decided early on that we would post odds this time on whether the winner would be male or female," Maerz said.
"The higher odds were on the male, since Kelly won the first one and Clay was the early favorite, but Ruben has led most of the way since then. We were sad for her, but we were pretty glad that Kimberley [Locke] was voted off, since she was a 10-to-1 underdog."
As of Thursday morning, the odds on Ruben versus Clay at Intertops were almost as close as the 2 percent gap host Ryan Seacrest said separated the two men in audience voting. Ruben is listed as a 10-to-13 bet, meaning you would have to risk $13 to win $10, while Clay is listed as 10-to-11. Maerz said the "Idol" action has not been as heavy as last year, but that so far Intertops has accepted nearly 5,000 bets on the show.
Lou Pearlman knows all about the importance of television in breaking unknown talent. The veteran manager (ex-'NSYNC, ex-Backstreet Boys), broke the seal on reality music shows with "Making the Band," which launched O-Town. "I think they're both very capable, and the public seems to love them equally, but it depends on what you're looking for," Pearlman said. "It's apples and oranges, whether you like hip-hop soul or contemporary pop. If it was up to me, I'd give them a tie."
Pearlman gave props to Ruben for his rich voice, but also for going against the grain. "If you go by talent, Ruben has it. He doesn't look like 50 Cent or Usher, but he certainly has the voice, that robust Aretha Franklin sound. He's not a young teen star type because of his look, but it's about what he can do vocally. Clay is more of a Justin Guarini type, it's just a matter of what material he's given to work with."
It's against Nevada gaming regulations to take wagers on non-sporting events that are judged or for which the results are known beforehand, but Jamie Shea, sports book director for Las Vegas' Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, worked up some just-for-the-hell-of-it odds exclusively for MTVNews.com. Shea fell in line with the rest of our experts and put the numbers in Ruben's favor, listing the heavyweight singer at 5-to-7 odds (bet $7 to win $5) and Clay at 6-to-5. The winner will be announced Wednesday.