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Taylor, Katharine in Final Idol Faceoff

Taylor, Katharine in Final Idol Faceoff
Ray Mickshaw/FOX

updated 05/23/2006 AT 04:45 PM EDT

originally published 05/23/2006 AT 06:00 AM EDT

For Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee, tonight is their last chance to sing their hearts out before one of them is crowned the winner of American Idol.

Betting pools give Hicks a slight advantage, and Simon Cowell – who last season accurately predicted Carrie Underwood's victory – told Jay Leno last week that he expects the salt-and-pepper-haired 29-year-old from Birmingham, Ala., to win.

However, Cowell also told Leno that McPhee, a 22-year-old from Los Angeles, has "a fighting chance," and Paula Abdul recently said in Teen People, "Katharine is so primed to be the next Kelly Clarkson."

One thing is for certain: The two finalists think highly of each other. Of his competitor, Hicks told reporters on Friday, "She has amazing vocal runs. She's had some great moments on the show. It's so cool to see somebody that talented and with that amazing vocal talent, just to be able to watch them. I'm a fan."

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In a separate interview, McPhee said, "I think Taylor's main advantage is that he's really free on stage. I get nervous and clench up. That's something Taylor is really, really great at. We're both so different."

The two certainly come from different backgrounds. Before Idol, Southern boy Hicks, whose fans call themselves the Soul Patrol, fronted an eponymous blues band in Alabama.

On his May 12 trip home to Birmingham, he received a hero's welcome, complete with a parade, a meeting with Gov. Bob Riley and some down-home Southern cooking. "You take grits for granted," he said.

California girl McPhee performed in musicals as a student at L.A.'s Notre Dame High School. When she paid a visit to her alma mater, McPhever-afflicted teenage boys screamed out marriage proposals, cheerleaders chanted "Go, Katharine, go!" and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa showed up at the campus' packed gym.

"You make me feel like a winner, regardless of what happens," she told the crowd as she spent an hour singing, dancing and hugging former teachers.

In one respect, however, Hicks is already the winner – of Monday's coin toss to determine who would sing first on Tuesday's show. (He decided to let McPhee go first.)

"This finale is going to be awesome," he promised on Friday. "There are so many things that are going to happen with me that I really can't share with you. I wish I could. There are so many moments for me and Katharine both that are just very special. It's going to be a unique finale."

As for McPhee, she's looking forward to seeing her former competitors when they return for the finale. "I'm just really happy to have everybody back, the top 12 back, and just spend time with them," she said. "I'm sure I'll be excited and nervous, but usually when I'm excited just being excited helps me stay calm."

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