"American Idol" is inching closer to crowning a winner.
The top seven contestants sang songs from the past three years Wednesday. The judges praised Jessica Sanchez, who sang Jazmine Sullivan's somewhat obscure song "Stuttering," and gave a standing ovation to Joshua Ledet, who celebrated his 20th birthday with the up-tempo "Runaway Baby" by Bruno Mars.
At this point in the show, the remaining singers have all shown they have the chops to be there, but tonight's elimination will send one of them home.
"I think you don't really see a bad singer make it this far anymore now that 'Idol' is such a mature show," USA Today writer Brian Mansfield told ABC News. "The last two seasons, there have been really good singers from top to bottom."
But only one can win. Here are our top five picks for who could go all the way.
|Front-Runner: Jessica Sanchez|
It has been a long time since a woman claimed the "American Idol" crown, but 16-year-old singing prodigy Jessica Sanchez has the best shot this year. The San Diego native, who is Filipina and Mexican-American, could become the first Asian and Hispanic 'Idol.'
"I think Jessica Sanchez stole the show from day one," Haley Reinhart, who placed third last season, told Ryan Seacrest Wednesday. "So, I really don't think anything is going to be able to stop her now. She's fantastic."
Since performing Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and receiving a standing ovation from the judges, Sanchez has consistently delivered. From the start, "Idol" mentor Jimmy Iovine declared Sanchez "has talent from A to Z" and called her "the one to beat."
Having front-runner status, though, does not guarantee a trip to the finals, as last year's Pia Toscano learned when she was eliminated in the ninth round. Iovine has warned that Sanchez "needs bigger songs and more powerful songs" to win. In fact Jessica Sanchez was in danger of going home on March 12th but judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler charged the stage and announced they were using their one save of the season on her.
Jennifer actually snatched the microphone from Jessica and said, "Give me that mic. This is crazy. Yes, we're using the save." Randy said, "This girl is one of the best singers in America ever." He then urged everyone to vote for the best on the show this season. Jessica sang Deborah Cox's "Nobody's Supposed to Be Here" as the credits rolled.
USA Today's Mansfield adds that it takes more than a great voice to win "Idol" these days. "If you harbor the illusion that 'American Idol' is still just a singing competition, then Jessica has to be the favorite, but these days winners have more to do with the voting habits of the audience than the quality of the singers."
|The Spoiler: Colton Dixon|
For Mansfield, the true front-runner from day one is 20-year-old Colton Dixon from Murfreesboro, Tenn. "He hits on every demographic marker with the audience," Mansfield said. "Like the last four winners, he's a cute young white guy who plays an instrument. He's from the South, which always helps. And he's a known quantity in Christian circles. He's been working the church circuit, which is very strong voting bloc if you can tap into it."
Dixon, who has the most Twitter followers and "likes" on Facebook, is unafraid to invoke God or sing an obscure song, Mansfield believes, because he knows already who he is and what kind of artist he'll be. And like Paramour, Switchfoot and Daughtry, to some extent, he'll be able to move between the Christian and the secular markets. "He's ready to launch his career," Mansfield said.
|Tossup: Phillip Phillips|
"American Idol" has not always awarded originality, but this year Phillip Phillips, a 21-year-old pawnshop employee from Leesburg, Ga., has scored high marks with the judges and the audience precisely because he's unique. Before he made the top 13, Iovine said, "We desperately need originality on this show. I would sign this guy on the spot." But Phillips' "I gotta be me" routine could be wearing thin. Last week, Iovine called his Phil Collins cover of "That's All" the "worst performance of the season."
"Phillip doesn't listen to anybody and he's shown he's willing to die on the battlefield over a gray shirt," Mansfield said, referring to Phillips decision to wear not one, but two, gray shirts against designer Tommy Hilfiger's advice. "Eventually someone with an attitude like that is going to make a fatal mistake and there's going to be no one there to help him."
Mansfield thinks Phillips could finish as high as second place or flame out sooner if his stubbornness overshadows his talent.
|The Dark Horse: Skylar Laine|
When she made the Top 13, Iovine declared 18-year-old Skylar Laine from Brandon, Miss., "the country singer for season 11." Laine, who has been compared to a young Reba McEntire, has proven she's more than just a country girl, however. Last week might have been a turning point for her when she chose Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" over Dolly Parton's "9 to 5." Iovine compared her to powerhouse Sanchez. "She went from the bottom to the top," he said. "If she continues this, she can win the whole thing."
Mansfield said he's not sure Laine can win, but he could see her going far for "most improved" and, with some seasoning, become a big country star. "It's a little like watching Miranda Lambert in the first season of 'Nashville Star,'" he said. "She's got tons of potential, but it make take her a little longer to realize it."
|Return of Soul: Joshua Ledet|
Iovine has called Joshua Ledet, the 19-year-old gospel singer from Westlake, La., "the real deal." Mansfield agrees that Ledet is one of the best singers in the competition, but his style isn't for everyone. Ledet doesn't fit into the smooth R&B crooner mold of past winner Ruben Studdard. He's more of a shouter like Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson. "Joshua is a very polarizing person," he said. "You either like the gospel shouting thing that he does or you don't." Just like voters were split over Deandre Brackensick's falsetto, Ledet's spirited singing might not take him all the way.