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Final showdown

Simon gives Carrie Underwood the edge on ‘American Idol.’ By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

At the end of the "American Idol" broadcast Tuesday night, when both Bo Bice and Carrie Underwood had finished their trio of songs, Simon Cowell made his prediction: "Carrie, I think you’ve done well enough to win the competition."

That statement may have a big impact. The timing of the pronouncement at the end of the show, shortly before the phone lines opened is key — it’s the show’s final message to viewers. And the belief that this was a close race that could come down to a few votes, means that Fox wants viewers to think that every vote counts — although given the fact that the network doesn’t release the vote totals, take that bit with a grain of salt.

Plus there was the fact that neither of the other judges said anything original about either candidate all night. They were so undistinguishable that both Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul may as well have taped their comments to Bo and replayed them after Carrie’s performance. Perhaps Simon felt it was up to him to try and foist his will upon the American voters.

What Simon did not say, and what he could not have accurately said, is that Carrie outperformed Bo in Tuesday night’s finale.

Bice has more talentBo Bice has been the better singer throughout much of the competition, and certainly in recent weeks. If the point is to pick someone to go out on tour right now and get the audience rocking, he’s the clear choice.

But "American Idol" isn’t designed to pick the better musician; it’s a popularity contest. In addition to having the better voice and a charming manner, Underwood seems to have a whole lot of popularity to draw upon.

She’s never been in danger of being voted off, and there’s never been any indication that her support slackens when she struggles.

Bice probably needed to score a knockout blow to feel secure in his chances in the voting. That didn’t happen.

It probably wasn’t even a possibility, given the songs each of the contestants were given to sing. It was mostly a night of cheesy ballads, and lulled the public to sleep as much as it inspired people to vote.

Original songs were original duds

Neither of the two was able to do much to knock the other out of the competition. Both were pretty average on "Inside Your Heaven," a boring original that will sadly be the winner’s first single. It’s a cookie-cutter ballad sort of like Kelly Clarkson’s "A Moment Like This," only seven times as banal and not nearly as memorable.

Bo’s version was a little better. However, his second song was the best of the night, because it showcased his advantages while Carrie’s second song pointed out her big weakness – the lack of any kind of stage presence.

The most noticeable advantage Bice has is that he’s much more comfortable on stage than Carrie. For that second song – deemed to be his favorite from the competition thus far — Bice sang the Ides of March’s "Vehicle" and marched about the stage like he’d get bonus votes for hitting every nook and cranny.

Meanwhile, Carrie sang Martina McBride’s "Independence Day" and pretty much stood there like a statue, as she did for her two other songs (both ballads). Her voice was nice, as it always is, but she was singing a song while Bo was putting on a show.

That coin toss mattersCarrie, however, might have had the two biggest advantages. First is that rock-solid fan support, but more importantly, she won the coin toss before the show.

The first coin toss was aborted when Ryan Seacrest somehow dropped the coin down a grate. On a season that’s made the news for snafus as much as singing, it was somehow fitting that the show’s host would fumble the coin. It’s probably a miracle that everyone has simply managed to find their way to the set each week.

By winning the toss, Underwood got to sing last. For most of the night, it seemed like a disadvantage, as her nerves seemed even greater coming after the more experienced Bice. Particularly on the second song, Bo set the bar too high for Carrie to match.

But Underwood comes from Oklahoma, which is college football country, and every college football fan knows that it’s better to have the ball last than first. It gives you the opportunity to make up for a lot of mistakes with one great comeback.

But in this case, it was even more of an asset. Whether by choice or by producer design, Bo began his competition with "The Long, Long Road," his original song. Bland, but better than "Inside Your Heaven," which he finished with. Underwood, meanwhile, got that out of the way first, and finished with "Angels Brought Me Here" (making Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian very proud).

"Angels Brought Me Here" is not a fantastic song either, and Underwood sang the first part of it like she was hoping the fans would quickly forget it.

But midway through the vocals, the band and background singers kicked in, and Underwood kicked it up a couple of notches. She ended the song, and the competition, with a glory note that trumped the rest of a dull night, and probably was enough for her to win.

A brief recap of the night:

Round one
Both Bice and Underwood went with ballads. Apparently, they and the producers decided that the 3,000 in the audience at the Hollywood Theatre needed a good bit of sedating before making up their minds. Bice sang "The Long, Long Road," while Underwood got to sing the Idol original "Inside Your Heaven." Simon gave the round to Carrie, but Bo seemed to earn at least a draw with the audience.

Paula on Bo: "It’s really hard singing a song nobody knows, but I get chills watching people vibe to you. You could sing Webster’s Dictionary – it all sounds good to me."

Paula on Carrie: "You sang the song beautifully. You had a couple of off notes, but who the heck cares?"

Round twoBice started with "Vehicle," by the Ides of March, and finally got the crowd in gear in his best performance of the night. For some reason, Carrie picked Martina McBride’s "Independence Day," which as Simon pointed out wasn’t a great choice for her. This round went to Bo, no contest.

Randy on Bo: "That’s what I’m talking about! That’s how you put it down! That was hot!"

Randy on Carrie: "I gotta say, welcome back Carrie. That’s the Carrie I love."

Round three
It was Bo Bice’s turn to sing "Inside Your Heaven," which he did pretty well given the fact that he’s a Southern rocker trying to sing a cloying love song. Carrie sang "Angels Brought Me Here," and pulled off the round – and perhaps the competition – with a strong finish.

Simon on Bo: "It’s the only time I’ve seen you nervous throughout the competition. It has been, for us, an absolute pleasure having you on the program."

Simon on Carrie: "Carrie, you have a lot of guts. You’re competing against someone who is older than you and more experienced – but Carrie, I think you’ve done well enough to win this competition."

Who will be the champ?If you're voting on the best performer right now, Bo Bice should be the choice. No contestant has done more to earn the title than he has. Unlike Carrie and other rivals like Constantine Maroulis, Anthony Fedorov and Scott Savol, he had hardly any airtime at all early in the competition, and started from scratch in the semifinals. Bice hasn't let up since. He's taken the biggest risks and shown the greater range; he should win it all.

Carrie Underwood, meanwhile, was a huge TV presence during the auditions, anointed a favorite early in the competition and declared by Simon to be the future winner and top record-seller just a couple of weeks into the final round. But since then, she's essentially stagnated.

She's struggled most of the time she's deviated from the country genre — with her cover of Heart's "Alone" the notable exception — and will definitely need some coaching before she's ready for her close-up. She has nowhere near the stage presence Bice does — the only time she moves on stage is to brush the hair from her face.

However, she's a whole lot younger than Bice and has that great voice and a personality that's easy to root for. Ultimately, her likability and potential will draw more votes than Bice’s pure talent. Look for Carrie Underwood to be crowned the next "American Idol" on Wednesday.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.