Tensions Mount for American Idol Finale

05/26/2004 at 08:00 AM EDT

Tensions Mount for American Idol Finale
Fred Prouser/REUTERS
By this time Thursday, everyone will know the new American Idol winner. If the program's judges and TV critics had their way, based on Tuesday night's televised showdown, Fantasia Barrino would already be wearing the crown.

But the public will have its say, and judge Simon Cowell already stated for the record he thinks the people will choose Diana DeGarmo, of Snellville, Ga.

During Tuesday's first round, 16-year-old Diana clearly had the advantage, with a gospel choir-backed version of "I Believe." Judge Randy Jackson put her on the same perch as Celine Dion, Maria Carey and Whitney Houston. But Fantasia, 19, pretty much made an uncharacteristic botch of "All My Life." "A complete mess," criticized Cowell.

Round Two: Diana's did an okay "No More Tears," while Fantasia regained her power with "Summertime." Third try: Diana's "Don't Cry Out Loud" had her screaming midway ("You had one last chance to nail the competition, and I don't think you did," Cowell told her), while Fantasia showed how "I Believe" should be sung.

Cowell called Fantasia's "I Believe" her "acceptance speech," and with luck, that will be the number that the voters will remember when they called in their votes.

"The stage is yours – it's your night, my dear, it's your night," judge Paula Abdul told Fantasia after "I Believe."

Cowell said the single mother from High Point, N.C., was "the best contestant we've had in any competition." Jackson agreed, as did guest judge Paul Anka.

Fantasia's reaction to all this approbation? Tears streamed down her face and she heaved with sobs.

The FOX talent hunt's big winner will be announced at the end of a two-hour live broadcast to be beamed from Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.

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