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Correction to This Article
The Sunday Politics column in the Dec. 17 early Sunday edition incorrectly said that the Federal Election Commission pursued regulatory enforcement this year against mortgage finance giant Fannie Mae. The target of the regulatory action was Freddie Mac.
On 'Monday Night Football,' An Announcement From Obama

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Sunday, December 17, 2006

For first-term Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to get the avalanche of media attention he did while addressing New Hampshire Democrats a week ago was impressive. To appear the following night on "Monday Night Football" was even more so.

Obama's hometown Chicago Bears were playing the St. Louis Rams. The game was being watched in 8.5 million homes, and Obama, widely seen at this early stage as a potential top competitor to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for the Democratic presidential nomination, had all the viewers to himself.

Over the years, the show has had public figures make cameos on the nights of big games.

"We try to find a unique way to open our telecast, and certainly with Senator Obama representing Illinois and Chicago and being so hot, so to speak, we thought it would be a great opportunity," said Jay Rothman, the show's producer.

About a week and a half before the spot appeared, an ESPN producer called Obama's office to see if he would take part. At first, ESPN suggested doing it in the form of a mock political advertisement. But Jon Favreau, the senator's speechwriter, knew the spotlight would be on his boss's possible ambitions in the days after Obama's New Hampshire speech. So Favreau suggested rewriting the script to play off the speculation.

On Monday afternoon, Obama's communications staff sent out a tantalizing advisory that Obama would make an announcement "about an upcoming contest of great importance to the American people."

As that night's broadcast got underway, the camera focused on Obama sitting at his desk in his Washington office. "I'm here tonight to answer some questions about a very important contest that's been weighing on the minds of the American people," he began. "A contest about the future . . . a contest that will ultimately be decided in America's heartland.

"Tonight, I'd like to put all the doubts to rest. I'd like to announce to my hometown of Chicago and all of America that I am ready" -- and he paused to put on a Chicago cap -- "for the Bears to go all the way, baby."

They did. The question now is, will he?

Much to Learn About '08 Field

Last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that Clinton and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) hold early leads over potential rivals for their parties' 2008 presidential nominations.

But the poll also showed that voters still have a lot to learn about the potential candidates. More people, for example, knew about Clinton's views than about those of other would-be contenders. Yet a majority of those interviewed said they knew little or nothing about her positions.

As for Giuliani, nearly three-quarters of the people said they don't know much about his views. Some observers have wondered whether GOP support for Giuliani would decline once conservatives learned about his liberal leanings on such social issues as gay rights and abortion. In the poll, just 36 percent of self-described conservatives said they knew a lot about his views.

Despite all the attention Obama is getting, 77 percent of the people interviewed in the poll didn't know much about him after his two years in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has had a national reputation since he ran for president in 2000, also still has much educating to do. Sixty-nine percent said they knew only a little or nothing about him. Most Americans know virtually nothing about outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who is weighing a presidential bid.

FEC Likely to Stay Vigorous

As what is likely to be the nation's most expensive presidential race gets underway, the incoming chairman of the Federal Election Commission said he wants to continue the aggressive enforcement strategy the agency adopted over the past year.

Robert D. Lenhard, a Democrat who has served on the commission for one year after more than a decade with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, will take over in January from outgoing Chairman Michael E. Toner, a Republican. During Toner's tenure, the agency pursued major regulatory cases against Freddie Mac, the mortgage company, and several "527" organizations that spent unregulated millions in the 2004 elections and played an important role in framing the campaign. Such groups included MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

"We were able to promulgate a lot of different regulations. We made significant steps in trying to update and reform the practices of the agency. I hope to continue that," Lenhard said.

Lenhard said the FEC might face a situation in 2008 in which neither major-party presidential candidate accepts public financing for the general election, which would be a first since the system of public financing of presidential campaigns began more than three decades ago.

Toner has predicted that the major candidates will raise $500 million each to fund their campaigns.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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