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Contestants, Judges Battle on 'Idol'

The competition is heating up on Fox’s hit talent search series “American Idol,” and that’s just between the judges.

Acid-tongued Simon Cowell and fellow judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson traded barbs in a news conference Monday that included the show’s eight young finalists.

After a group performance of “California Dreamin'” for the Television Critics Association by the would-be singing stars, most of the entertainment was provided by the judges.

When a reporter asked Abdul whether the series could jump-start her own recording career, Cowell put his hands together as if in prayer and silently shook his head no – and Abdul shot him a look.

Simon, a British record company executive who’s become known for his devastating critiques of performers, was asked after the news conference what he thought about Abdul as a recording artist.

“Next question,” he replied.

Singer-choreographer Abdul later got in her own shot, saying “There’s times he’s hard to take” and calling some of his contestant evaluations “out-and-out rude.”

Cowell and Jackson sparred verbally as well.

“Who wants to pick a fight with Mount Kilimanjaro,” Cowell told the heavyset Jackson, a Grammy-winning musician, during one exchange.

For their part, the contestants – including reported front-runner Justin Guarini, 23, of Doylestown, Pa. – said they get along just fine.

Nigel Lythgoe, co-executive producer of the series – full title, “American Idol: The Search for a Superstar” – defended the show’s blunt evaluation of contestants.

“You call it meanness. I call it honesty,” Lythgoe said.

Some truly untalented people have tried to make the cut, he said, adding, “We’ve been stunned at the people who think they can sing.”

Americans handle the criticism better than did competitors in the British version of the series, “Pop Idol,” Lythgoe said. He also cautioned that the outcome is still a question mark, despite Guarini’s apparent popularity, just as it was until the final episode of the British show.

“American Idol,” which airs Tuesdays and Wednesdays, held a nationwide search for contestants. Each week, viewers vote by telephone to eliminate one contestant, allowing the rest to advance to the next round after the judges offer their assessment.

The finalists are being whittled down to two, and the winner will be chosen Sept. 3-4. A recording contract is the prize.

Fox has announced the show will return for a second season.

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