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''American Idol'' Tuesday

By RD Heldenfels Published: March 7, 2006

The PR machine seems to be kicking into high gear, building up the personalities, keeping an eye on the previous votes and maybe even trying to keep the votes close with some selective editing.

Mandisa was the class of the show tonight, head and shoulders ahead of everyone else, and the judges said so. But when ''Idol'' ran the recap clips of all the performers, it chose a surprisingly tepid one for Mandisa, while finding better stuff for other singers whose overall performances were not as good (such as Kinnik Sky).

Paula, meanwhile, is fully into earth-mother mode, and struggled once again to say nice things when the performances were not great, starting with an underwhelming Paris Bennett. If I were a woman singer on the show, every time Paula told me that I looked beautiful, I would think that my singing must have been really bad. Of course, if Simon told me that ''America loves you,'' I would figure he's had a peek at recent votes and I'm doing all right.

We were also deep into the land of cutesy, what Ryan Seacrest called ''little well-known facts.'' (Expect more of that. We have gone from pretaped performance shows to live ones). In other words, Lisa Tucker loves Jimi Hendrix, Kinnik likes chitlins, Ayla Brown in her childhood thought her dad was Elvis, Katharine McPhee went to the same school as Constantine Maroulis, Kellie Pickler has a dumb dog.

Good grief. To the performances, then, with the understanding once again that my report card is simply MY report card, and I know that the viewer vote may go a different way. Although my card and the viewer vote have been close, as the field tightens and popular singers occasionally struggle, I'm expecting some big disparities.

So here goes: Mandisa tops with a B plus. Melissa McGhee gets a B minus with a convincingly rocking performance, although her performance also reminded me how intrusive the backup singers can be, covering up some notes I would have liked to hear.

C plus for Lisa Tucker, who knows how to sell a song. Ayla Brown, not as good as usual, and Kellie Pickler, thriving more on the show's embrace of her personality than on her singing, each get a C. Paris Bennett, often good, seemed out of her range and even a little out of breath; because she opened the show, I expected better. C minus.

Katharine McPhee: D plus. I really resented the show's pushing ''McPhee-ver'' as a catchphrase. When she started in on Aretha's ''Think,'' I started snarling, ''Big mistake,'' and she didn't do much to change my mind. Energetic, but not soulful. Then Kinnik: D. She admitted to problems, but I didn't think she ever had a handle on her song.

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