UPDATE 1-Obama is Time Person of Year; who are runners-up?

Wed Dec 17, 2008 10:59am EST

(Adds details, quotes)

By Claudia Parsons

NEW YORK Dec 17 (Reuters) - First, the easy part: Time magazine named U.S. President-elect Barack Obama the Person of the Year after he became the first African-American to win the White House. But the real contest was to make the shortlist.

The runners up were U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Chinese director Zhang Yimou, the man behind the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.

"It's unlikely that you were surprised to see Obama's face on the cover," Time said. "He has come to dominate the public sphere so completely that it beggars belief to recall that half the people in America had never heard of him two years ago."

"In one of the craziest elections in American history, he overcame a lack of experience, a funny name, two candidates who are political institutions and the racial divide to become the 44th president of the United States."

Picking the runners-up must have been a harder job, and the choices ranged from the man charged with tackling the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression to an artist whose work was seen by nearly one-third of the world's population.

Paulson "has come to play a historic role at a historic time," the magazine said. "A lame-duck president has given him nearly complete control over the country's economic policy in the midst of an epic financial collapse."

Sarkozy "has put France on the map," Time said.

"There are times when Nicolas Sarkozy resembles a force of nature rather than a conventional political leader. He has energy, ideas and vitality in abundance," it said, pointing to his handling of the Georgia crisis and the financial crisis.

Time said Palin, the Alaska governor and self-styled hockey mom who was plucked from obscurity to run for vice president on the Republican ticket, had made "the most astonishing political debut in modern times."

"She's fresh, she's phony; an inspiration to women, an insult to them; the bright future of the Republican Party, the cartoon princess of its populist past," it said. "She split people then, and they're divided still, and she's the one subplot in this story that remains utterly unresolved."

The name of the final runner up may be less well-known to many, but Time said his creative genius had given the world an unforgettable spectacle in the Olympics opening ceremony.

"He created arguably the grandest spectacle of the new millennium," it said.

(Reporting by Claudia Parsons; Editing by David Wiessler)

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