LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze face off on Tuesday in a tighter-than expected battle for the 2010 "American Idol" title that pitches the Season 9 front-runner against a dark horse who peaked at just the right time.
Bowersox, 24, a dreadlocked single mom from Ohio, and DeWyze, also 24, who a year ago was working in a Chicago paint store, are expected to sing three songs apiece in Tuesday's live finale from Los Angeles.
Abrasive British judge Simon Cowell said he thinks DeWyze is poised to win the TV competition and a guaranteed recording contract.
"If you'd asked me five or six weeks ago, 100 percent I would have said Crystal. But now I've changed my mind. I think Lee is going to win," Cowell told fellow "Idol" judge Ellen DeGeneres in an interview on her talk show, airing on Tuesday.
DeWyze has grown in the past three weeks from a shy, nervous performer to a confident bluesy singer and guitarist who brought the house down in last week's semifinals with his version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Bowersox, who also plays guitar as well as piano and harmonica, had previously been seen as a shoo-in for the title after virtually flawless performances throughout the season.
But in recent weeks, questions have arisen over how much Bowersox really wants the media attention and pressure that comes from being crowned "American Idol".
Song choices for Tuesday evening are being kept secret but will likely include an original, inspirational song that the winner will instantly release as his or her first single.
Bowersox, who struggled for years to make a living by playing in small town Ohio bars, and DeWyze are the last two standing from some 100,000 aspiring pop stars who auditioned last summer around the nation for the Fox TV singing contest.
Now in its 9th season, "American Idol" is still America's most watched TV show but has seen audiences slip by about 9 percent this year.
In recent weeks, less than 20 million viewers have been tuning in as the contest reaches its climax, compared to almost 30 million in 2006.
The winner will be announced at the end of a two-hour finale on Wednesday, and will get a recording contract and the chance to launch a Grammy-award winning career like those of previous "Idols" Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.
Wednesday will also mark the departure of Cowell, who announced in January that he was leaving to launch his own talent show "The X-Factor" on Fox in the fall of 2011. No replacement for Cowell has been yet been announced.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte