Since the Democratic nomination was all but settled March 2, President Bush has spent millions of dollars more than his foes in the first television advertising battles of the general election.
But Democrat John F. Kerry and a coalition of anti-Bush groups are now matching the president and even outspending him in some key markets, according to data compiled for The Times.
Consider this snapshot from the political air war in New Mexico, which has been identified by both campaigns as a swing state.
Bush campaign commercials were broadcast three times in Albuquerque on Saturday at an estimated cost of about $2,000, according to the independent monitor TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group of Arlington, Va. A Kerry response ran twice that day for about $1,900.
But MoveOn.org and the Media Fund, two anti-Bush groups, also weighed in 12 times with ads costing about $11,500.
To be sure, ad buys can fluctuate from day to day in any campaign. But TV spending data suggest that in some areas of the country, Democrats may be able to blunt the overwhelming financial edge Bush holds over Kerry.
Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of the media analysis group, said the president was forcing Kerry and his allies to spend more than they might have preferred to so early in the year. The president jumped on to the airwaves rapidly this month, kick-starting the 2004 general election campaign.
“Bush is, right now, dictating the tempo,” Tracey said.
There is little doubt that the incumbent, who had a war chest of more than $100 million at the end of January, will spend more on television than Kerry, who was almost broke after he clinched the nomination on March 2.
The data provided to The Times on Monday showed that Bush spent more than $7.2 million on commercials aired in major markets in 18 contested states and about $430,000 on several national cable channels from March 4 through Saturday. Kerry, who began a counterattack only last weekend, spent $100,000 on the only day in that period when he was on the air: Saturday.
But Kerry was not alone.
The Media Fund, led by veteran Democratic strategist Harold M. Ickes, weighed in during that time in contested states with $1.7 million worth of TV ads attacking the president. MoveOn.org, led by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Wes Boyd, spent another $3 million to do the same. In addition, a group called the New Democrat Network spent about $13,000 on Spanish-language ads that criticized the president and supported Democrats.
Those independent groups, which operate outside the formal structure of the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party, competed strongly last week in markets such as St. Louis, Cleveland and Orlando, Fla. Missouri, Ohio and Florida are all considered critical states in a narrowly divided electoral map.
Media Fund spokesman Jim Jordan said the organization’s TV ad spending would continue until the national party conventions this summer.
Jordan predicted Bush and Republican allies would outspend Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups -- but not swamp them in regions that matter. “Every indication is that we will be competitive and will be heard,” Jordan said.
Republicans charge that MoveOn.org and the Media Fund, which are supported in part by six- and seven-figure donations and pledges from wealthy individuals, are spending money in violation of federal campaign law.
The 2002 McCain-Feingold law generally limits contributions to $2,000 per individual for groups that broadcast advertisements to influence a federal election. But the law has been interpreted to have certain exceptions, a matter of controversy now pending before the Federal Election Commission. In addition, courts have ruled that the 1st Amendment allows wealthy individuals to make unlimited expenditures on elections as long as they are not coordinated with candidates or parties.
In an e-mail to supporters Monday, Bush alluded to the Media Fund and MoveOn.org as he appealed for donations.
“The other side has several attack groups, funded by large unregulated ‘soft money’ contributions from wealthy liberals,” Bush wrote, “so I need your help today with a gift of $1,000, $500, $250, $100 or even $50 or $25 to keep ratcheting our TV effort up.”
Among GOP interest groups, a pro-Republican organization called Citizens United spent about $25,000 on ads critical of Kerry, airing them between March 7 and Saturday.
Another GOP organization, the Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates gay rights, spent about $45,000 on a television commercial urging opposition to a constitutional amendment to ban recognition of same-sex marriage.
Bush supports the amendment.