While DeGarmo stumbled in the middle of what had been one of her strongest songs during the series, Melissa Manchester's "Don't Cry Out Loud," Barrino was flawless throughout, and the judges were effusive in their praise.
"The stage is yours," Paula Abdul said after Barrino's final song, titled "I Believe."
"It's your night, my dear," Abdul said. "It's your night."
Barrino seemed to believe, too. Tears streamed down her face, and she heaved with sobs.
"I think you are, without question, the best contestant we've had in any competition," Simon Cowell said, comparing her to the approximately 70 singers who've won "Idol" contests in countries around the world.
As for DeGarmo, Cowell said: "I think you had one last chance to come and nail this competition, and I don't think you did."
She received some positive remarks, too. After DeGarmo finished singing "No More Tears" by Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer, judge Randy Jackson said: "You're singing your face off tonight."
Gov. Sonny Perdue told the 16-year-old from Snellville, Ga., on the phone after the show that he hopes she wins in spite of Cowell's comments.
"We think you really kicked it, and America's going to show Simon he doesn't know what he's talking about," Perdue said at the governor's mansion in Atlanta.
Earlier, Perdue had declared Tuesday "Dial for Diana DeGarmo Day" in the state. He asked Georgians to support the singer by watching her on the Fox series and voting for her by phone.
The lines were open for four hours Tuesday night -- twice as long as usual -- to allow viewers to choose between DeGarmo and 19-year-old Barrino.
The winner, who will be announced Wednesday night in a two-hour finale, receives a recording contract and instant fame.
Each performed three songs Tuesday night before a live, nationally televised audience from the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, home of the Academy Awards. One of them was "I Believe," written by former "Idol" contestant Tamyra Gray, which the winner will go on to record.
In Barrino's hometown, nearly 1,600 supporters watched the show from Providence Place auditorium. Fans were poised and ready with their cell phones as the show ended.
Similar to Perdue, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley had urged residents to show support for their "favorite daughter."
"He encourages people to watch the show and vote for the best talent -- and that's Fantasia," said Ernie Seneca, a spokesman for Easley, who is a fan of the show.
Easley sent a letter to Barrino last week inviting her to visit him regardless of the outcome of the final "Idol" voting. He described Barrino as an "amazing talent" and a "larger-than-life personality" that has made her a star to millions of North Carolina residents.
Easley and Perdue bet on the "American Idol" finale. Fresh fruit and NASCAR tickets are on the line in a friendly bet between the southern governors.
Easley is wagering two V.I.P. ticket packages to an October race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord. His bet also includes 16 pints of blueberries from a Johnston County nursery.
Perdue countered with two V.I.P. package tickets to an October race in Atlanta and a bushel of peaches.
The show's judges have said all along that they think Barrino is the better singer, but they function only in an advisory role. Abdul said in an interview Tuesday that she thought either finalist could win, depending on the strength of their performances.
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