LOS ANGELES Heading into the NOKIA Theatre on Tuesday night, the consensus seemed to be that David Cook would be the next "American Idol."
On the way out, however, things looked entirely different. David Archuleta fans were jumping up and down literally with enthusiasm. Cook fans were considerably more subdued.
Just when the tide seemed to have turned against him, Archuleta fought back with his not-so-secret weapon his amazing voice. His three songs brought the crowd to its feet and brought major praise from the judges, while Cook didn't get the same kind of enthusiastic response. Particularly from the judges.
Simon Cowell went so far as to declare, "What we have witnessed is a knockout" by Archuleta.
"Idol" producers couldn't resist a boxing/fight theme that didn't get any less dopey as the night went along.
The judges weren't entirely sold on Cook's first song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Randy Jackson said he was "not sure if you did everything you could with it."
But the judges fell all over themselves praising Archuleta's rendition of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me." Jackson said it was "molten hot"; Paula Abdul called it a "beautiful, stunning performance"; Cowell said it was "the best you've done so far" and gave the round to the Utah teen.
And the judges preferred Archuleta's rendition of "In This Moment" to Cook's performance of "Dream Big." The songs were from the "American Idol" songwriting contest.
If there was a knockout punch, it may have been Archuleta performing "Imagine" ("Stunning," Abdul said) for a second time in the competition. Fans were even singing it outside on the plaza after the show ended. It blew away the audience and overshadowed Cook's take on "The World I Know," which Cowell called "utterly the wrong choice" for the night.
"David Archuleta won the night for sure. He was amazing," said Laura Lovas of Los Angeles, who was in the audience. "He gives me goosebumps.
"It's pretty surreal to be there in person. The stage is larger than life and the talent is as well."
Lovas had turned into such an Archuleta fan she left the theater wearing a T-shirt with his face on it a T-shirt she bought it at the "overpriced concession stand."
There were plenty of indications that the tide had turned against Archuleta before he performed on Tuesday night. After being declared the favorite by judges early in the competition, he'd been hit by some inevitable backlash.
On Tuesday at the NOKIA Theatre at L.A. Live, Cook signs were much more in evidence than David Archuleta signs by a factor of maybe 2-to-1. Or more.
When Cook's name was mentioned, the screams were a lot louder and lasted a lot longer. And a lot of it was coming from the teens and preteens who were thought to be Archuleta's constituency.
It was astonishing to see the difference as the 7,000 people left the theater. A lot of the Cook signs seemed to have been rolled up; Archuleta fans were jubilant as they waved their signs.
Some of those fans had been their for eight hours or more, either clutching their tickets for dear life or trying anything they could think of to try to wheedle some tickets. Including one guy with a sign reading, "Idol anything for tickets."
When the doors to the NOKIA Theatre finally opened, an eclectic crowd streamed through the doors overdressed, middle-aged women showing too much cleavage, kids in jeans, power-brokers arriving in limousines, even a Brownie troop.
The luckiest person there may have been 23-year-old Lacie Gregson of Murray, Utah, who put her name on the waiting list for tickets six months ago before she even knew who David Archuleta was.
"It's like a dream," she said. "I can't believe it."
And she's rooting for the hometown boy.
"He's so cute. He's good. I hope he wins," Gregson said. "But both Davids are good."
And Archuleta had plenty of fans who weren't from Utah, including 14-year-old Taylor Davenport, who flew in from Dallas to attend the show and root for David A. because of "his voice. And he's cute."
"Well, he's my husband," she joked with an absolutely straight face. "When he sang last week, he looked into my eyes through the TV. I just saw it."
Her mother stood by, rolling her eyes a bit.
On the other hand, Annaliza Austin, 28, a native of the Philippines who lives in San Francisco, was there to root on David C.
"When he sings, he's very original and he is very good," she said. "I love him!"
The event brought out the ghosts of "Idol" past, including Sanjaya, the young man who caused such a stir when he was named one of the "Idol" finalists last year. He said he felt a certain "kinsmanship" with Archuleta. (Sanjaya, who was known more for his hairstyles than his vocals, was also 17 when he competed.)
"It's kind of exciting. It's kind of cool," he said. "It's down to the wire."
Second-season finalist Kimberly Caldwell, on hand to co-host the TV Guide Network's pre-"Idol" show out on the plaza in front of the theater, expected big things from the Utah teen.
"I really think the halo will actually appear over David Archuleta's head tonight," she said.
No halo, but certainly the kind of performance he was hoping for.
Both Davids have done everything they can do to impress the viewers and gain their votes. All that remains is tonight's announcement. (The "Idol" finale airs on a one-hour tape-delay on Fox/ Ch. 13 from 7-9 p.m. MDT.)
And, while history doesn't altogether support their thesis, some former "Idol" finalists don't think it will matter who wins.
"They're good to go. You make it to the top two and you're set for life," said fourth-season finalist Nadia Turner.
"It doesn't even matter who wins. They're both going to be huge," said Constantine Maroulis, another fourth-season finalist.
"Well, it certainly mattered our year, didn't it?" said Justin Guarini, who finished second to Kelly Clarkson in Season 1. Clarkson, of course, became a huge star; Guarini was dropped by his record company after slow sales and is hosting (with Caldwell) a show about "Idol" on the TV Guide Network.
"David (Archuleta) has a lot of talent, though. I think he'll do well," Guarini said.Whether he'll launch a career as the "American Idol" or as the runner-up, America will learn tonight.