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Associated Press
David Cook, center, embraces David Archuleta after Cook was named the new American Idol during Wednesday's season finale of "American Idol."

LOS ANGELES — Sometimes, nice guys don't quite finish first. At least not on "American Idol."

Utahn David Archuleta, declared the favorite by "Idol" judges three months ago, fell short at the last step. David Cook won the title of "American Idol" on Wednesday night, leaving the 17-year-old Utah teen the runner-up.

There were Archuleta fans in tears inside the NOKIA Theatre at L.A. LIVE, but Archuleta himself seemed considerably less affected. Talking to the press afterward, he giggled and laughed — a lot.

"It's a big relief," he said.

After last night, it's like "oh my gosh. No more getting judged after each performance. Now we just get to do what we love to do, and it's not viewed as a competition," he said with a laugh.

"I just can't believe that I made it this far. I didn't know if I'd make it past the first round. It's just such a blessing."

Cook said he didn't expect to win.

"I've been holding my breath for four months. Tonight was just about exhaling," he said.

"The respect that I have for David Archuleta is very much past the competition thing," he said. "He has more talent at his age than I know what to do with at 25. To be able to share the stage with him is an honor for me."

And Archuleta returned the admiration.

"He's like my big brother. I've learned so much. I've looked up to him since the beginning of this. He's such a great guy . ... I just feel so honored to be standing next to him."

In the moments before the winner was announced, the tension inside the theater was palpable.

"It's sort of like getting adrenaline put in your veins. It's amazing," said Donna Summer, who performed with the six female finalists.

And it wasn't easy to tell which way things would go — the audience seemed pretty evenly split.

While Archuleta was all smiles as host Ryan Seacrest prepared to open the envelope and reveal the winner, he looked nervous, then disappointed/relieved to have the pressure end.

Viewers had been told repeatedly for the past several weeks that the vote was the closest ever; it turned out not to be. According to Seacrest, 97.5 million votes were phoned or texted after Tuesday's final performances, with 56 percent going to Cook and 44 percent to Archuleta — which is rather like a landslide.

That translates into a margin of 54.6 million votes to 42.9 million votes.

And that came in spite of judge Simon Cowell all but handing the competition to Archuleta on Tuesday night, declaring he was a decisive winner in the final sing-off. Whether he had any inkling of what the vote turned out to be or not, Cowell backed off his appraisals on Wednesday.

"It wasn't quite so clear-cut as we called it," he said, addressing Cook. "I would take this opportunity to apologize because I think I was verging on disrespect for you, and I don't think you deserve it."

Archuleta said he's "glad (Cowell) apologized to Cook, because I don't think anyone realizes how much work we put into this."

And both Davids received the highest of praise from the toughest of the "Idol" judges.

"You're both very nice people," Cowell said. "And for the first time ever, I don't really care who wins. I think you're both terrific."

Cook was magnanimous in victory.

"I didn't really know that the apology was warranted," he said.

"I thought what he said was an opinion, nothing more. But at no point did I feel disrespected. But ... an apology from Simon is a pretty rare gem."

While some Archuleta fans — particularly the young ones — left in tears, nobody was crying tears for Archuleta's future, which singer Graham Nash said will be bright.

"He has a beautiful voice. I think he's going to have a big career," said the man whose own career has spanned more than four decades. "Both these Davids are going to make a fortune. As they should."

"I think he'll do great," Summer said. "He has an amazing voice."

"At the end of the day, this is seen all over America. ... It's such an instant fan base that you get from the show," said Bo Bice, who knows something about finishing second on "American Idol" — he was the runner-up in Season 4. "So, it doesn't matter if you win or lose. And to make the Top 2 is a big achievement."

As for Archuleta, he's got the "American Idol" tour this summer and, other than that, he's playing it by ear.

"Right now, I just hope to see what happens. I really want to make an album and see how that turns out. And if music doesn't go as far as I was hoping it would, then I will focus ... education," he said. "It would be nice to make a living off (music), but you never know."

As for his current heart-throb status, Archuleta has yet to adjust.

"I don't really see myself as that. That's kind of weird," he said. "I still think I'm David."

With two hours of broadcast time to fill and only minutes of material that were essential to the show — the announcement of the winner and his rendition of what will be his first single — "Idol" producers had a lot of time to fill.

The show opened with the Davids singing a duet, then a bunch of them doing schtick with Mike Myers that was nothing more than an extended commercial for Myers' upcoming film, "The Love Guru."

(But you had to love it when Archuleta said, "I liked the weird, random sitar videos." And, "It was a very interesting session, even though I had no idea what he was talking about.")

This year's "Idol" finalists got lots of exposure: Syesha Mercado singing with Seal; a performance by Jason Castro; the six female finalists singing with Summer; a Carly Smithson-Michael Johns duet; the six male finalists singing with Bryan Adams. Also, Cook sang with ZZ Top; Archuleta joined OneRepublic; and Brooke White sang with Nash.

The "other" LDS finalist — the one not named Archuleta — made a great impression on Nash, a music legend in his own right. "She's singing from her heart and her soul and she means every word," he said of White. "You can't get much better than that."

Jimmy Kimmel did a bit of standup. "Hey, maybe you guys could help me with this," he said. "I valet-parked outside. How much should I tip Sanjaya?"

The Jonas Brothers performed, as did past "Idol" winners Jordin Sparks and Carrie Underwood performed.

Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. lip-synced as the Pips, spliced into a video with Gladys Knight. Clips of horrifically bad auditioners. And a bizarre performance by rejected (with good reason) "Idol" hopeful Renaldo Lapuz, accompanied by the USC marching band and songleaders, who were joined onstage by judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson.

Apparently, when executive producer Simon Lythgoe promised the "biggest star in the world" would perform on Wednesday, he was talking about George Michael, who performed just before the winner was announced,

And, after a season when the ratings were in decline, Tuesday's show ticked up slightly from last year's final performance show. And then there were the almost 100 million votes from viewers.

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