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Few wide-open races in

Winners might offer political commentary -- or even bark

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The sun rises over giant Oscar statues outside the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood Sunday.

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- There are few wide-open races in this year's Academy Awards.

"Brokeback Mountain" and its director, Ang Lee, have won almost every major award this season and are considered the favorites to win for best picture and best director.

Reese Witherspoon, whose performance as June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line" earned raves, is considered this year's Julia Roberts: a popular, beloved actress who's finally going to get her due from the academy as best actress.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was eerily accurate as Truman Capote in "Capote" and also has won most every award in sight and is a favorite for best actor.

But the awards aren't presented until the envelopes are opened, and there are rumblings of upsets.

"Crash" has strong support for its willingness to address prejudice and is considered "Brokeback's" toughest best picture competition. (Its director and co-screenwriter, Paul Haggis, likely will win the original screenplay award.)

Heath Ledger's breakout performance as the conflicted Ennis Del Mar in "Brokeback" may earn best actor recognition.

And the Weinstein Co., run by Oscar campaign masters -- and former Miramax heads -- Harvey and Bob Weinstein, has shrewdly marketed Felicity Huffman and her performance as a pre-op transsexual in "Transamerica" for best actress.

There's also George Clooney -- the popular actor is a triple threat this year: nominated for writing and directing in best picture nominee "Good Night, and Good Luck" and giving a strong performance as a cynical CIA agent in "Syriana."

"Good Night" may go home empty-handed, but the academy, wanting to honor Clooney for something, may vote him best supporting actor for "Syriana" -- preventing Paul Giamatti, unfairly overlooked last year in "Sideways," from winning.

Some pundits believe Clooney and Giamatti will split the vote, allowing "Crash's" Matt Dillon to win.

Most of the nominees have something in common: They're "small" movies, released by indies or the major studios' independent arms. In fact, critics of this year's Oscars have gleefully pointed out that none of the best picture nominees has come close to $100 million at the box office (a standard benchmark for a film's success) nor have they necessarily played well in the heartland. (Watch how Middle America feels cut off from Hollywood -- 2:50)

Without a blockbuster rooting interest -- such as "Titanic" or "Gladiator" -- there are questions as to whether this year's awards might be among the least watched ever.

But Jon Stewart, who was brought in as much for his popularity among younger viewers as his comedic expertise, has a cheeky response to that as well.

"It's going to be the most controversial Oscars ever," he told King. "I would not be surprised if the whole country tunes in."

The 78th annual Academy Awards are scheduled for 8 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC.

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