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Can 'Colbert' finally beat 'Daily Show' for Emmy's best variety show?

It's the battle of the late-night comedy kings again this year, but will Stephen Colbert finally beat Jon Stewart?

Could this be Stephen Colbert’s year to finally unseat Jon Stewart in Emmy’s outstanding variety, music or comedy series competition?

“Maybe” and “don’t count on it,” according to Emmy watchers.

“The Colbert Report” is up against fellow Comedy Central program “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which has won the trophy 10 years straight since 2003. Also in the running are “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Real Time With Bill Maher” and “Saturday Night Live.”

“I’m a fan of both (Colbert and Stewart) and I’ve never really been bothered that Stewart has won every year, which is not to say I haven’t been surprised that he’s won every year,” said Jon Weisman, Variety senior editor and the Hollywood trade’s former awards editor. “For all we know, he’s winning by one vote.”

He thinks what keeps Colbert from winning might be the difference between Stewart appearing on “The Daily Show” as himself and Colbert playing a character who was spun off from Stewart’s program in 2005.

“It’s a character who’s so strong, I’m not sure that it’s everybody’s cup of tea, as amazing as it is,” Weisman said of Colbert. “Stewart’s show – it’s not that I’m calling it mainstream – but I think it is a little more easily digestible.”

Tom O’Neil, editor of awards prediction site GoldDerby.com, said Stewart’s ability to poke fun at the establishment, particularly Republicans, plays well with the traditionally liberal Emmy voting base as well.

“Colbert assumes a different identity, a character played for high comic value, and he’s giving us a comedy show first with political relevance,” he added. “Stewart is doing the opposite, giving us what appears to be a news show with comic touches. It feels more important and Emmy voters are notorious snobs.”

Weisman said he thought “The Colbert Report” would have won in 2011 when Colbert launched his Super PAC (“Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow”) because of all the attention it received.

“He was such a part of the conversation at that point,” Weisman noted.

With Stewart stepping aside this summer to make a movie and cast member John Oliver filling in as host, that could boost Colbert’s chances, according to Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Granted, the awards are supposed to be for select, submitted episodes that aired prior to Stewart’s summer hiatus, but his absence might have been on voters’ minds when they cast their ballots this summer.

“People do have the same very strong affection for Jon Stewart that they also have for Stephen Colbert, and I think at some point that could shift (the voting),” Thompson said. “And I think this would be a perfectly logical year for that to happen given that Stewart hasn’t been on for the summer. It’s a way of rewarding Colbert without dissing Jon Stewart.”

Thompson said Oliver’s stewardship as “The Daily Show” fill-in host could cut both ways, possibly boosting “The Daily Show” or offering an opening for “The Colbert Report.”

“John Oliver proved ‘The Daily Show’ is as great as it is not because of Jon Stewart, but because of the great writing,” Thompson said. “I’m amazed at how little that show suffered from Stewart’s departure.”

Both Stewart and Colbert declined to comment on their Emmy competition, but one look at the predictions at GoldDerby.com suggests the best variety show award is Stewart’s to lose. All seven of the site’s editors picked “The Daily Show” to repeat its winning ways.

That’s not to say one of the other competitors couldn’t win: Jimmy Kimmel may be the most likely interloper given the attention on his January move from midnight to 11:35 p.m. But O’Neil said if Emmy voters did their jobs and watched the episodes submitted, “The Daily Show” will win based on the strength of its entries. 

It hasn’t always worked out that way in the past.

“There have been times where Jon Stewart handed in such poor samples, it looked like he was trying to lose and he still managed to win,” O’Neil said. “That argues for the fact that even if he hands in horrible episodes, he still cannot lose. This year he’s probably unbeatable because he’s back to submitting strong stuff.”

Colbert beat Stewart in the variety show writing category in 2008 and gave what O’Neil considers one of the greatest acceptance speeches in the history of all show business awards: “Oh, Hollywood, all is forgiven.” The comedian’s team accomplished the feat again in 2010.

“That suggests Colbert can beat Stewart in subcategories,” O’Neil said. “But I think he’s doomed to be subservient to the master in that top category.”