John McLaughlin has been staring into the sheep's entrails again.

The Washington talk show host, who correctly predicted Time magazine's Newsmaker of the Year for two years running, has made his 1984 picks well in advance of Time's famous annual cover, which will appear on the stands next Monday, dated Jan. 7, but will be announced Sunday.

Last year McLaughlin predicted a double cover of Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov. He was right. And he got it right the year before that with his far-out prediction of the computer as the first nonliving top newsmaker.

This year McLaughlin likes Jose Napoleon Duarte, president of El Salvador, and Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president-elect of Nicaragua.

An interesting choice: Duarte is generally regarded as friendly to the United States and Ortega as generally hostile. Together they could be said to represent the ambivalence of Latin Americans toward their powerful and nervous northern neighbor, or else they could symbolize the basic options that appear to face Latin America: to turn to the right or the left.

In any case, McLaughlin's candidates don't sound much like the suggestions in Time's Letters column, which form the basis for the eventual decision. Readers have been naming all sorts of public figures, from President Reagan to Bishop Tutu, from the American and Soviet space teams to the Olympic athletes, from the late Martin Luther King Sr. to Michael Jackson, from David the "bubble boy" to Baby Fae.

"We've been getting a lot of letters this year," said Time spokesman Brian Brown, "starting as far back as September."

The Newsmaker of the Year, formerly called Man of the Year, has been a Time tradition since 1927. This year, as usual, the magazine's editorial staff pored over the 150-plus nominations, wrote comments on the likeliest ones and handed the short list to the editors, who made the final selection.

"We first became aware of Mr. McLaughlin last year when he named the computer," Brown said. "That was a pretty good shot. We were beginning to wonder if we had a mole in the house."

A former Nixon speechwriter and Jesuit priest, McLaughlin has insisted all along that his guesses are "nothing but common sense." He broadcasts his predictions on his WRC-TV show, "The McLaughlin Group."

This year, getting into the spirit of the prediction thing, he has announced an auxiliary choice, the conservative McLaughlin Group's own favorite.

For them, the newsmaker of the year was Jeane Kirkpatrick, the beleaguered ambassador to the United Nations.