ATLANTIC CITY, SEPT. 20 (SUNDAY) -- With tears streaming down her face and a red ribbon of AIDS awareness pinned to her beaded gown, Miss Florida, Leanza Cornett of Jacksonville, was crowned the 66th Miss America early this morning before a crowd of 18,000 at the Convention Center here.

Cornett, 21, made an articulate appeal on behalf of persons with AIDS in the final moments of a pageant that seemed to put more emphasis on issues than beauty and evening gowns. The first runner-up, Catherine Ann Lemkau, Miss Iowa, spoke about child abuse, while the second runner-up, Shelli Renee Yoder, Miss Indiana, talked about a youth outreach program she established back home. The other two top finalists were Pam McKelvy, Miss Kansas, and Du Sharme Carter, Miss Oklahoma.

"I'm a very, very blessed girl. Someone that God is smiling on real big," said Cornett in a statement reported by the Associated Press. She is the first Floridian to win the contest.

Cornett is studying communications at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. She said she volunteers weekly at a group that helps people with AIDS and a center for AIDS-afflicted children.

The only child of a restaurant owner in Florida, Cornett succeeds Carolyn Sapp, the former Miss Hawaii, who will appear Monday night in a NBC television drama about her life. Cornett, who receives a $35,000 scholarship and a sports car, will spend the next year traveling around the country with a chaperone, as the 1993 Miss America.

Cornett was among a handful of favorites in the pageant, which saw the elimination of another early favorite, Carrie Lee Davis, Miss South Carolina, when the 10 semifinalists were whittled down to the final five. Davis, 26, gained some attention because she is the first medical doctor to enter the pageant.

To many pageant veterans, this year's telecast ranked as one of the better ones in terms of talent and stage production. Indeed, many of the contestants, notably McKelvy, who sang a popular song from "Dream Girls," made a strong impression on the audience, which seemed to like the high notes as much as the hula number staged with some Hawaiian beefcake.

Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford were the hosts for this year's pageant, which was judged by, among others, Donna Axum, Miss America 1964; NBC newscaster Faith Daniels; actor Michael Dorn; actor Dann Florek; choreographer Susan Stroman; actress Cindy Williams; and 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie, a figure skater.