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The Christmas season, we're always told, starts ever earlier and earlier. So why shouldn't the publicity blitz surrounding a Christmastime newsstand-boosting stunt start as early as possible, too? Time's Person of the Year feature — nee Man of the Year — is one of the great magazine franchises: An insantly recognizable brand that sells both copies and ads. Today — 35 days, it should be noted, before the Person of the Year issue hits newsstands — Time convened a lunchtime panel discussion on who should be this year's Person.

It's a chance for advertisers to feel loved — as the event wrapped up, Time's worldwide publisher, Ed McCarrick, thanked the audience for "supporting everything we do all year" — by noshing on gratis steak, shrimp, and asparagus while media notables trade witticisms. Despite Time president Eileen Naughton's opening shpiel praising managing editor Jim Kelly for "opening up" the POY selection process, no one in the room is under the impression anyone other than Kelly and his coterie will decide the Person. Still, it's amusing to listen to some ideas.

On this year's panel: Donna Brazile, the Gore campaign manager who somehow parlayed managing the worst presidential campaign in recent memory into a successful talking-head existence; Grover Norquist, the acknowledged head of what Hillary Clinton infelicitously dubbed the vast rightwing conspiracy; Cynthia Cooper, the Worldcom whistleblower who was co-Person of the Year in 2002; NBC anchor Brian Williams, who ably delivers his very-funny-in-person; CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who is friendlier to us than we had any right to expect; and Time White House correspodent Matt Cooper, who narrowly missed being sent to jail alongside Judy Miller. Jim Kelly moderated, noting that three of the six panelists were named Cooper. (We'll also point out, as he did not, that two of the six are let's-all-play-along-with-the-charade gays.)

So who did this crowd think should be 2005's Person of the Year? It's after the jump — though we warn you: it's only marginally more interesting than any other lunch presentation you've ever been to.

Cynthia Cooper nominates Gen. Russell Honore, "who represented in New Orleans what Giuliani did after 9/11."

Brian Williams goes for Mother Nature. Who would play the role in the photo shoot, Kelly wonders. "Bea Arthur," deadpans Williams.

Anderson Cooper doesn't disagree with Williams. "Mother Nature," he says. "She's a bitch." He considers bloggers — aw, Anderson, we love you, too — but decides it has to be something Katrina-related. His decision: first responders and American citizens — just about the only people who didn't fuck up in Louisiana.

Donna Brazile, a New Orleans native, goes for the first responders, too. Grover Norquist, after first toeing the GOP party line and suggesting a purple-fingered Iraqi voter, then head-fakes toward acknowledging the reality in Iraq by suggesting al-Zarqawi before returning to expectations with the nomination of a joing Rosa Parks/Condi Rice selection.

And, finally, Matt Cooper, responding to Kelly's suggestion, grants that Patrick Fitzgerald would be a possibility — only if Rove is indicated, too. He also makes a case for Bill Gates as philanthropist and for George W. Bush as the incredible shrinking president.

Other thoughts from panelists:

Wilson before Plame.

Not Pastor Rick — because why this year?

Too early for Pope Benedict.

Googe guys seems runner-up worthy. ("You give good sidebars," notes Williams.)

And no J.K. Rowling.

Got your own picks? Comment away. From what we gather, Jim Kelly even reads this stuff. Who knew?