CHICAGO — Like a candidate still running for office, a smiling and jovial Rod Blagojevich waded into the crowd waiting outside his corruption trial – 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 who the judge began questioning Thursday as the trial kicked off. They will decide if the former Illinois governor tried to sell President Barack Obama's former Senate seat and leverage his power into a moneymaking enterprise.
"I feel great," said Blagojevich, as he worked the crowd. "The truth shall set you free," he told one well-wisher as he shook the man's hand.
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.
Blagojevich himself was "on some kind of reality show, too," she said. But the judge clearly tried to steer clear of political opinions.
Some 18 months after FBI agents arrested him at his home at dawn, Blagojevich arrived at federal court, holding hands with Patti. He stepped into a gantlet of about 30 waiting cameras and reporters outside the courthouse. Of no more than 10 bystanders, three or four were vocal supporters.
Blagojevich appeared to display at least a hint of anxiety at one point after walking through a metal detector, fumbling with and dropping his wallet several times as he retrieved it from a basket.
In the courtroom, he took his place at a separate defense table from his brother and co-defendant, and sat with his attorneys to size up a pool of potential jurors for his corruption trial. They included a math teacher, an ex-Marine 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 supporter for his wife's business.
"Is she a difficult employer?" Zagel asked, drawing a laugh from the courtroom.
There was no visible joking, nor anything overly glum from Blagojevich. He sat with his attorneys – sometimes taking notes, sometimes leaning forward and looking at the juror being questioned.
Some 29 potential jurors were questioned before Zagel adjourned for the day.
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. "I want to make money," he says in a telephone discussion of the seat with a lobbyist friend, according to an FBI affidavit. And prosecutors say he refers to it as "golden" thing that he won't give up for nothing.
Prosecutors have also lined up numerous key witnesses, including political insiders such as Blagojevich's former chiefs of staff John Harris and Alonzo "Lon" Monk.
Blagojevich's attorneys have said that the recordings, if played in their entirety, would show he did not try to sell the Senate seat.
The former governor and his brother, Robert, a Nashville, Tenn., businessman, have pleaded not guilty to charges that they conspired not only to sell or trade the Senate seat but also turn the governor's office into a powerful machine to pressure people for campaign money and payoffs.
They deny charges they used the governor's power over the state pursestrings in an effort to squeeze hefty campaign donations out of a racetrack owner, a highway contractor, a children's hospital executive and even top presidential aide Rahm Emanuel, then an Illinois congressman.
Rod 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.
"I'm looking forward to seeing you guys in the morning," he told reporters as he left the courthouse Thursday.
(This version CORRECTS Blagojevich quote).)