Top contenders for Miss America MISS AMERICA, from 1-C future of America, the greatest land on Earth.) The highest and lowest points are always tossed out in all scoring. j Why? We don't know. These judges pick the top 10 contestants, and determine the three preliminary talent winners and the three preliminary swimsuit winners, one of whom is generally Miss A. Though not always. And perhaps not this year. Confused yet? There's more. Tonight a new panel of judges steps in but Delta Burke will not be among them. Miss Florida 1974 isn't feeling her perky Miss A best, has a cold and will not show. (This is what passes for big news this year.) She has been replaced by Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955. The other judges are actor Paul Sorvino; soprano Kathleen Battle; Mortimer B. Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of US. News and World Report; actor Patrick Wayne; Miss A 1958, Marilyn Van Derbur, and Grammy producer Pierre Cossette. .This group judges the top 10 contestants in talent (40 points), swim-suit (15) and evening gown (15). No direct questions will be asked of them on stage this year, even though the pageant continues to stress intelligence and the fact that it is a scholarship program. The 30 points from their preliminary interviews will be carried over. Once again, the high and low judging scores in each segment are tossed out. Why? Haven't a clue. From all this confusion, the judges will select the inner sanctum, the Top Five. Then for absolutely the first time ever! Regis and Kathie Lee! will hold an absolutely impromptu and spontaneous "rap session" (in the kaffeeklatschtalk-show sense of the phrase and not to be confused with black urban music), which will be the first and only time, other than shouting their states, that the voices of the cream of American womanhood will be heard throughout the land. For this effort, they will be awarded 10 points. Truly confused? Me, too. But all the hooey boils down to this: Without talent, you're sunk in this pageant. Without a good brain and strong resume, it's unlikely you'll go far. And while this is the thinnest and most physically groomed set of contestants in pageant history, looks are definitely a distant third in what matters. So who are the top contenders? Thomas' wife faces controversy as well THOMAS, from 1-C 0" mi Miss Illinois Cheryl Lynn Majercik, is an opera singer and AIDS volunteer. Miss Maryland Debra Renea Fries has one of the most amazing talents ever seen on the Convention Center stage, and received close to a Standing O Thursday night. She's a twirler. You laugh, but she's an amazing twirler. She's twirls with her ears! She twirls with her nose! She's the best darn twirler on the planet the 1981 World Baton Twirling Champion, the winner of 1,200 championships and has developed a series of baton rolls that look like magic tricks and are named after her! The winner of Thursday's talent competition, she's also a teacher of the deaf and was once anorexic and bulimic. She is shy, though. Miss A's don't tend to be quiet. Miss New York, Marisol A. Mon-talvo, is hard to beat. She's a professional opera singer, and a truly emotional performer. The only black and Hispanic in the pageant, Montalvo is the eldest of seven children raised by a postal worker. This stands out in a program dominated by women from middle- and upper-middle-class homes. She's also a strong interview, outspoken about being called ugly for most of her life and still having a and took action to extricate herself," pronounced overbite. She's bound to make the Top Five. There isn't a single dazzling dancer this year, and all the musicians, other than the pianists, failed to shine. Miss Iowa, Lisa Somodi, is the third preliminary talent winner for her piano playing, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Iowa who is interested in film scoring. (Following in the tradition of the reigning Miss, Marjorie Judith Vincent, a pianist, all the keyboard-playing contestants are wearing gowns with amazing trains.) But Somodi faces some tough competition from the other pianists here: Miss Washington So Young Kwon (a classics major contemplating law school), and the statuesque Miss Utah Elizabeth Anne Johnson, who is 6-feet-4 in heels and won swimsuit Thursday. The two other swimsuit winners are Miss Louisiana, Christi Page, who does a crowd-pleasing version of "Great Balls of Fire," and Miss Hawaii, Carolyn Suzanne Sapp, who has an interesting problem. She's too sexy. Miss A's are not supposed to be too sexy. Pretty? Yes. Beguiling? Sure. But sex, as it's been noted, has almost nothing to do with being Miss A. Just in case you are one of the four or so people tuning in to look at the swimsuit segment, the other pageant bodies of death are Miss New Jersey Amy Fissel (but she's an Eagles cheerleader and no scholar), Miss' Oklahoma Gina-Lynne Smith, Miss Arizona Darsi Lynn Turner, Miss Texas Rhonda Rene Morrison, Miss Virginia Sheri Huffman, Miss Kansas Robbin Lee Wasson, Miss California Paige Adams and Miss Florida Mary-Ann Olson. We do know who has the best smile: Miss Alaska Beth Ann Gustaf-son, who was awarded Natural White's $10,000 Smile of Confidence Scholarship. Two of the pageant's greatest beauties are the two youngest contestants, Miss Montana Jeni Ramseth and Miss Nevada Malia Winn. Both are 17 and have yet to be over-groomed and have all their natural loveliness bleached or starved out of them. But entering college freshmen haven't got much of a chance competing against 25-year-old lawyers and opera singers. (Toward this end, pageant CEO Leonard Horn is lowering the age limit from 26 to 24 in 1993.) But here's the real hard part. The strongest candidates, other than Miss New York, have not won preliminaries. Should one of these young women win, it would be the first time a non-preliminary winner has worn the rhinestone crown since Miss A 1979, Kylene Barker. But if you asked who would make the best Miss A, who are the contestants who shine in all categories, it boils down to Montalvo and these three: Miss Illinois Cheryl Lynn Majercik if i lilfes 4 MSikiiiiMiiw?iiiiiiiiiMi'aaiiiii Miss Oklahoma, Gina-Lynne Smith, is a marketing major at Oklahoma State. is a tremendous opera singer, a dedi cated AIDS volunteer, and a terrific person to talk to. She's also the con testant with the strongest Philadel phia connections, having received her bachelor's and master's degrees in opera performance from the Curtis Institute of Music. She worked at the Victor Cafe, Boyd's, elan, Bistro St. Tropez, DiLullo Centro and 16th Street Bar and Grill. Majercik won the $10,000 Fruit of the Loom Quality of Life Award on Tuesday and donated the entire amount to a Chicago AIDS organization. Miss Mississippi Mary Allison Hur dle, in addition to being lovely, has a sweet operatic voice. It's nowhere near as powerful or professional as Majerick's or Montalvo's, but then Hurdle studied accounting at Ole Miss and plans to be a CPA the perfect follow-up to a lawyer and vet, the chosen professions of the last two Miss A's. Miss Oklahoma Gina-Lynne Smith is an Oklahoma State marketing senior who wants to run a nonprofit organization. Smith is one of the best popular singers, performing "Something's Coming" and "Somewhere" from West Side Story. She's very pretty, outspoken, talkative and friendly. So here's the prediction for Top 10: New York, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Washington, Louisiana, Iowa, Maryland, Hawaii and Utah. Or maybe Texas. Perhaps Georgia. Or Colorado. All we do know is education is the key to our future.