Jesus was the early favorite, but Hitler soon surged to the top.

That was before Yitzhak Rabin gathered crucial momentum and toppled the Nazi ruler, and before the computer-generated boomlet for Bill Gates.

Time is moving toward selecting a Person of the Century, and has engaged millions of global citizens with what's turned into a brilliant publicity stunt: an online poll. The competition has galvanized constituency groups, produced waves of e-mail lobbying, even led to electronic ballot-box stuffing.

"People want to win," says Janice Castro, editor of Time.com. "They're very emotional about it. It's great dinner table conversation or a parlor game."

The poll is what politicians call a beauty contest, since Time's editors will make the final selection. But the specter of Adolf Hitler as even virtual man of the century was enough to spur some Jewish groups into action.

"Those of us that work daily for the benefit of the Jewish community must do everything in our power to stop this," said an e-mail from a woman with the Bureau of Jewish Education. The attached message said: "I don't think that someone who is responsible for the death of millions and someone who taught hatred in such an unbelievable way should be called 'man of the century.' " Two staffers at the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay in California fired off a similar e-mail.

Hitler also generated outrage among some with no declared affiliation. "That is just plain sick. . . . You kind of people disgust me," one person wrote. Said another: "Who in their right mind would vote that raving maniac 'person of the century?' " And a third: "If you do that I will become part of a crusade to boycott your publication and any subsidiary for the rest of my life."

Of course, Time is trying to pick the most influential person of the 20th century, not the most admired. Past men of the year have included Hitler (1938), Stalin (1939 and 1942) and Ayatollah Khomeini (1979), who sparked the most canceled subscriptions.

What's truly remarkable--this is just Web chat, after all--is how Time has managed to offend lots of sensibilities.

In the beginning, "there was a huge concerted effort by Christians to put Jesus in first place," Castro says. Then Time ruled that Jesus and Mohammed were ineligible because they did not live in this century. That did not go down well in some quarters.

"I think it is rather irresponsible to take Jesus Christ out of the poll," one woman wrote.

"If it was your intent to offend millions of Christian people, then your goal has been accomplished!" another woman said. "I will never buy another one of your magazines or anything associated with your company!"

"To think that you do not believe Jesus is a real man!!!!!!! . . . I will pray for you," a third woman said.

The disqualification of Jesus pushed Hitler into the top spot, particularly after Balkans envoy Richard Holbrooke was quoted as saying the Third Reichman should get the nod. That brought the Jewish counteroffensive and a similar effort on behalf of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Pass this on to everyone you know," said one e-mailer. "Let's start a wave of votes for Dr. King, for his outstanding leadership and dedication during the civil rights movement."

But the Rabin campaign was so strong that the slain Israeli prime minister, who had not even been in the Top 20, was catapulted to the head of the pack in a matter of weeks.

The rules are not exactly pristine; there's nothing to stop a person from voting early and often. But Time draws the line at "robotic programs," such as the pro-Microsoft one that was launched to vote many hundreds of times for Gates. Time has retaliated by deleting these votes--such programs slow down the Web site--and "locking out" anyone who employs one. (Gates also has been trashed online by Macintosh fans who favor Steve Jobs.)

Even geopolitics plays a role. Turkey's largest newspaper urged readers last year to vote for Mustafa Ataturk--that nation's founder--in the finals (the century's 100 most influential people) and entire schools were enlisted in the effort. But the Ataturk drive has sparked an online debate about the 1915 massacre of Armenians. (The last of Time's 100 selections, spread among five categories, will be published in the magazine out Monday.)

As for the all-important superstar of the last 100 years, the top 20 now features two popes, a princess, a madonna, a King and a Beatle.

As of yesterday, Rabin was No. 1 with 492,824 votes, edging out Hitler with 413,614. And Hitler was being seriously challenged by Elvis Presley, with 410,717 votes. Rounding out the Top 10: Albert Einstein, Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Mohandas Gandhi, Ronald Reagan and John Lennon. Bringing up the rear were Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, Madonna, Pope Paul VI, Bill Gates, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Milton Friedman and Mao Tse-tung.

"People on the Web really like to tell you what they think," Castro says.

CAPTION: Two Kings and a furor: Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr. and, at the top, the man who caused a bulge in Time magazine's online balloting.

CAPTION: Several ones for The Gipper, above, landed him in the top 10, along with Yitzhak Rabin, left, the current front-runner. Jesus, to the dismay of many, was disqualified on a technicality.