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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze will battle each other for the "American Idol" title next week after guitarist Casey James was voted off by viewers on Wednesday.
Bowersox, a 24-year-old dreadlocked mom, had for months seemed certain to win the top-rated TV singing show. But DeWyze, 23, who worked as a paintshop clerk in Chicago before auditioning for the show last year, has gained steadily in confidence.
His performance of Leonard Cohen's classic "Hallelujah" on Tuesday stunned the judges and brought the "Idol" studio audience to its feet.
Judge Randy Jackson said on Wednesday that DeWyze had "blossomed beyond belief" during the five month-long season.
"I've never wanted to win more than I do right now," DeWyze said.
Bowersox, who a year ago was playing guitar and singing in small-town Ohio bars, also impressed with her version of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed."
But she seemed amazed when told on Wednesday that she was through to the finals. "I'm safe?" she asked in disbelief.
Bowersox, whose voice has been compared to Janis Joplin, is the first woman to make it to the "Idol" finale since 2007 when Jordin Sparks went on to win the title.
The expected elimination of blond, blue-eyed James followed his lackluster rendition of John Mayer's "Daughters" on Tuesday.
"I'm so thankful for the opportunity and it's been an amazing, amazing journey," James said. "I'm so honored that I'm here."
Wednesday's show included emotional footage of the three contestants visiting their home towns for the first time since they became national media stars, and a performance by 16 year-old Canadian teen idol Justin Bieber.
The 2010 "American Idol" will be crowned live on Fox television on May 26 after a two-part finale, and will win a recording contract.
The Fox TV show has launched the careers of Grammy winners Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson, as well as that of best-selling band Daughtry.
But after nine seasons, audiences have slipped about nine percent this year. In recent weeks, less than 20 million viewers have been watching per episode, compared to almost 30 million in 2006.
Next week also sees the departure of abrasive British judge Simon Cowell from the show. Cowell is planning to launch a U.S. version of his own "The X-Factor" talent show on Fox in the fall of 2011. No replacement has yet been announced for role on "American Idol".
Reporting by Jill Serjeant