CHICAGO - Like a candidate still running for office, a jovial Rod Blagojevich waded into the crowd - making upbeat statements, hugging, and shaking hands with supporters holding signs.
He's not on a ballot anymore, though, and the only voters that matter are the 12 people who will be chosen from the potential jurors being questioned Thursday. They will decide if the former Illinois governor tried to sell President Obama's former Senate seat and leverage his power into a moneymaking enterprise.
Since being ousted from office, Blagojevich has pleaded his innocence to the public on radio, in comedy shows, and in a book, often playing the lovable goof. For one reality show, his wife went in his stead - making an impression on one potential juror, who told the judge she had seen Patti Blagojevich on TV eating a bug.
Some 18 months after FBI agents arrested him at his home at dawn, Blagojevich arrived at federal court, holding hands with Patti.
"I feel great," said Blagojevich, who denies any wrongdoing. "The truth shall set you free," he told one well-wisher as he shook the man's hand.
In the courtroom, he took his place at a separate defense table from his brother and codefendant, and sat with his attorneys to size up a pool of potential jurors for his corruption trial. They included a math teacher, a Marine veteran, and a former precinct captain who said she would ask "for guidance from my heavenly father" in deciding guilt or innocence.
U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel got off to a late start and questioned only seven potential members of the jury before breaking for lunch. Among the first questions he asked was whether they had read much about the case and whether they could set aside any preconceived notions about Blagojevich.
Jurors were referred to in the courtroom by numbers only, starting with 101, the math teacher. Zagel plans to keep the jury anonymous until after the trial. Zagel had denied a request from five news organizations, including the Associated Press, to reverse that, saying the motion came too late because he had already told the jurors that their names would not be released until the verdict.
Once he got started, Zagel was brisk in his questioning and kept the mood light. Potential Juror 107 was a middle-aged electrical engineer, a veteran of the Marine Corps who said he doubled as a manager and technical support person for his wife's business.
"Is she a difficult employer?" Zagel asked, drawing a laugh from the courtroom.
Federal prosecutors have 500 hours of secretly made FBI wiretap tapes in which they say Blagojevich is plainly heard saying that he wants something in return for the Senate seat.
Blagojevich faces 24 counts including racketeering, wire fraud, attempted extortion, and bribery. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 415 years in prison and fines totaling $6 million.