Michael Becker, Fox
The eight remaining "Idol" contestants, clockwise from top left: Michael Johns, Brooke White, David Archuleta, Carly Smithson, David Cook, Kristy Lee Cook, Jason Castro and Syesha Mercado.

We're midway through the current season of one of America's top TV shows, and the cute, diminutive young man from Utah only has seven more rivals to outwit, outplay and outlast before he claims the big prize.

Oh ... um ... wait. That was last fall, when Utahn Todd Herzog won a million bucks on "Survivor." Now, Utahn David Archuleta is trying to outsing and outlast the competition on "American Idol."

"Idol" is a much different game than "Survivor," so Archuleta can't do what Herzog did. He can't lie, backstab and maneuver his way to victory. Well, not on camera, anyway.

But he does have to charm his way to victory, as Herzog did on "Survivor." "Idol" has never been about who's the most talented. It's about who's the most popular. Who can make the most viewers vote for him/her.

And just as Herzog had to make sure he played the game (and it was a game) on "Survivor," maybe that perpetually nice, humble Archuleta could outwit and outplay his competition. Let's look at the other seven competitors:

Brooke White will probably take care of herself. She seems like a lovely person, but based both on what the judges say and the fact that she ended up in the bottom three last week, it would be more than a bit surprising if she lasts much longer.

And do you think her continued presence is splitting the Mormon vote? Her exit could only help Archuleta.

Kristy Lee Cook was, perhaps, the odds-on favorite to go home last week but staved off elimination with a rousing rendition of "God Bless the U.S.A." But patriotism can't save her every week.

Still, maybe Archuleta could sing something patriotic to sew up that vote, too.

Jason Castro provides proof that you don't have to be supremely talented to make the Elite Eight on "American Idol." He's cute, has beautiful eyes and distinctive dreadlocks, but when it comes to singing, he only has a pair of deuces in this high-stakes game.

Once he's gone, the cutest-boy voting bloc will no longer be split. His exit could only help Archuleta.

Syesha Mercado looked like the "American Idol" equivalent of the "Survivor" contestant who's seen all the mistakes made in past season — being overly obnoxious, trying to take control too early, etc. Her mistake was trying to make like Whitney Houston by singing "I Will Always Love You" last week.

And this from someone who had barely avoided elimination on more than one occasion.

Gee, maybe song choice really is important.

Carly Smithson and Michael Johns are, arguably, two of the most talented contestants still in the running. And they are, arguably, two of the least likely to win for reasons that are entirely beyond their control.

They're not American. Smithson is Irish and Johns is Australian.

If it comes down to the final two and Archuleta is up against Smithson or Johns, you've got to think the Utahn will have it made. Are Americans going to vote for a non-American as the next "American Idol"?


Hey, any of the six Americans would have to be favored against one of the non-Americans. That's not nice and that's not fair, but it's human nature.

• David Cook is not only Archuleta's toughest competition onstage, but now he's got the sympathy factor working for him. Not only was he taken to the hospital after he performed last Tuesday, suffering from heart palpitations and high blood pressure, but there were the reports that Cook was stressed because his cancer-stricken brother has suffered a setback.

Just to reiterate, "American Idol" is all about who gets the most votes.

If this were "Survivor," the remaining contestants would be forming an alliance to eliminate Cook.

Of course, if this were "Survivor," they would have teamed up against Archuleta a long time ago.

ACCORDING TO RAMIELE Malubay, the 'Idol' finalist eliminated last week, there's not much chance of the remaining contestants turning on one another in "Survivor"-like fashion.

"Honestly, we never really thought of it as a competition until, like, Wednesdays when someone has to go home," she said in a conference call with TV critics. "It's really weird. We'd, like, help each other. We're a big family. We're not out to get the other person kicked off or anything.

"When we help each other, we really help each other. It's genuine, and it comes from the heart. We don't sugarcoat things just for the camera."

WITH MALUBAY — who's an inch shy of 5 feet tall — out of the competition, that leaves Archuleta as the shortest remaining finalist at 5-6ish.

"I'm older than Archuleta, and he walks by me all the time and pats me on the head like I'm his little sister," Malubay said.

SIMON COWELL ISN'T such a bad guy, according to Malubay, who didn't hear many kind words from the "Idol" judge on the show.

"He's a very nice guy." she said. "Backstage, when I left the show, he came and he was like, 'Oh, cry on my shoulder."'

Cowell also told her repeatedly that it was her song choice that had done her in.

"I really do believe in my heart that he says the things he says (because) he just wants us to be better," Malubay said. She added that "sometimes he overdoes it" because "it's TV, but he just wants us to be better. He didn't just pick us to pick us. He saw something in us, obviously, and he wanted us to do well."

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com