May 19, 2004 08:30 AM

While the producers of FOX’s American Idol have announced their plan to extend next week’s finale voting time – in order to counter the problem of jammed phone lines – judge Simon Cowell has already declared the winner: Diana DeGarmo.

In a highly candid and self-congratulatory interview in Wednesday’s New York Times, Cowell, 44, says he considers the Diana decision a done deal and that she’s the show’s “Seabiscuit. … I thought she was a stage-school brat when I first met her. But she’s quite a nice girl.”

DeGarmo is 16, and she floundered during most of Tuesday’s edition. Her rivals are Jasmine Trias, 17, who came across as a “cabaret singer” on Tuesday night’s Idol, according to music producer and guest judge Clive Davis, and Fantasia Barrino, 19, who blew away the judges and the crowd on the program.

Davis, who discovered Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys, told Fantasia that if he would have caught her singing in some club basement and didn’t know who she was, he would have signed her to a contract on the spot.

In analyzing Fantasia’s appeal, Cowell tells The Times she has “an element of unpredictability … in how she performs, in what she says when she answers you back. There’s a hint of madness there, which is good.”

As for last week’s ouster of La Toya London, which shocked those who devotedly follow the program, Cowell blames passive viewers who don’t bother to vote, as well as the fact “she was very cold. She could have been a robot for all the emotion or personality she put over.”

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