updated 2/23/2004 12:09:31 PM ET 2004-02-23T17:09:31

President Bush’s re-election campaign, prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising this year, will start running television commercials March 4 regardless of whether the race for the Democratic nomination is wrapped up.

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The campaign had planned to unveil its television commercials only after Democrats settled on a nominee, but that has taken longer than some Bush advisers had expected because John Edwards continues to challenge front-runner John Kerry.

“We always said we would begin advertising and engage in other areas when we knew who our opponent was,” Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman said Sunday.

The ads have been in the works for some time. Bush taped commercials a couple weeks ago in the White House residence, spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday.

Campaign advisers believe Kerry, who has won 15 of 17 primaries and caucuses so far to Edwards’ lone victory, will be the nominee after March 2, when 10 states hold contests. The Bush-Cheney campaign expects to spend a large chunk of its $100 million re-election fund on ads during spring and summer, particularly in states that were close races in 2000.

Rate checks
Mehlman said the campaign’s media buyers will start calling stations Monday to check ad rates and will purchase airtime over the next two weeks in selected broadcast markets and nationally on cable stations. He declined to discuss the initial cost of the ads or say which media markets would be chosen.

He said the first phase of the ad campaign, starting March 4, will begin by focusing on the Republican incumbent’s leadership. Spanish-language advertising also will be included in the initial ad runs as the campaign works to court Hispanic voters from the start.

At some point, Bush advisers say, ads will turn sharply critical, focusing on Kerry’s 19-year Senate career, as well as his time as a House candidate and years as Massachusetts’ lieutenant governor. Advisers say the ads likely will compare Kerry’s votes and quotes then with his recent statements.

The campaign and the Republican National Committee have been testing a line of attack against Kerry over the past few weeks that portrays the four-term Massachusetts senator as a liberal whose rhetoric often conflicts with his record or statements in the past.

The Bush-Cheney campaign sat on the sidelines during the primary season as Democrats spent about $37 million on TV ads over six months. About $17 million of that was spent on ads that attacked Bush or his policies, the campaign said. During that time, a spate of polls showed the president’s support slipping, and some surveys put Kerry in the lead.

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