As we all bask in the afterglow of Conan O’Brien’s tremendous final Tonight Show, I have some cold water to pour on this. There’s little doubt that, over the course of the rest of the year, the biggest winner of the late-night wars will be Jay Leno.

Why? Because once Leno re-takes the Tonight Show desk on Mar. 1, he’ll begin one of his inexorable, inexhaustible efforts to regain the ratings lead over David Letterman, now not just his rival but his grand arch-enemy. (Think Dave as Batman [brooding, wily, powerful] and Jay as The Joker [giggly, wily, powerful].)

And as much as it pains me to write this, Leno will probably succeed; it’s just a matter of how long it takes.

Because if you think the vast majority of Americans who have long watched The Tonight Show truly believes Jay is “tarnished” or “the bad guy,” as so many pundits have written, you’re deluded. Middle America still loves Jay, and the backlash to the backlash will be that Leno emerges just the way he’s been positioning himself: As the loyal underdog who’s now coming to rescue NBC’s late-night ratings.

Damage control is already in high gear: It’s being reported that Leno will appear on Oprah, TV’s great anointer of forgiveness, on Thursday.

Combine that with the fact that, once he Jaywalks back to 11:35 p.m., he’ll still be booking big-name guests (again, if you think Robin Williams or Tom Hanks or any other final-week Conan supporter is going to turn down Jay, you’re crazy), and he’ll strike millions of viewers as the warm, comfortable guy to watch. As much as you and I have revelled in the late-night wars, there’s a chunk of viewers who just want the sniping to stop now. I’ll bet Jay will shrewdly back off from any more attacks on Letterman, thereby leaving Dave in the tricky position of seeming too aggressive.

Hey, I hope I’m wrong. But I don’t think I am. Prediction: Jay will be number-one at 11:35 before September, when Conan can go to Fox (nooooo! don’t do that, Conan!) or FX or Comedy Central or wherever O’Brien chooses to land.

What do you think?

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