By MSNBC Correspondent
updated 4/15/2004 7:09:42 PM ET 2004-04-15T23:09:42

In politics, it is known as the burn rate — the speed at which a campaign spends the money it has raised. The Hardball ad watch team estimates that the Bush campaign has already spent nearly half of its pre-convention advertising budget.

With the polls showing the president even or slightly behind John Kerry, it means that the Bush campaign's huge financial advantage has now all but disappeared.

Since early March, the Bush campaign has been advertising at a rate of $9 million a week. But the campaign is now cutting that in half after seeing the president's election message pushed aside by the attention around 9/11, and by the daily attacks on American troops in Iraq.

"The bad news is overwhelming them right now, and I think they've got a predicament," says former Dean campaign manager and MSNBC analyst Joe Trippi.

The predicament gets worse when you look at where the Bush campaign started financially and where things stand today: The president raised a record $180 million, and half of that was budgeted for campaign operations, the other half for pre-convention advertising. But of the advertising budget, $90 million, the Bush campaign has already spent at least $40 million.

By comparison, John Kerry has spent about $10 million.

The huge imbalance only seems to have affected views about Kerry and taxes. Most voters think Kerry will raise taxes, but in the 18 states where the president has been attacking him, independent Democratic groups have been counterpunching with ads of their own ... and Kerry's favorability ratings remain steady.

Furthermore, a majority of battleground voters continue to say the president is taking the country in the wrong direction.

Knockout strategies have been tried before. Former President Bush hammered Michael Dukakis during a lull in 1988, and Bill Clinton attacked Bob Dole early in 1996. But even prominent Republicans believe the Bush 2004 knockout attempt of Kerry hasn't worked.

Making matters worse for the White House, the president's advertising is now ratcheting down at the very time John Kerry's is ratcheting up. Kerry's campaign plans to double its spending on TV ads starting next week.

What all this may mean is that the election may be entering a new phase. For the first time in this campaign, both the president and his challenger will be running TV ads at about the same clip. And given that polls show the race is still even, it is the kind of advertising parity Democrats have been dreaming of.

'Hardball with Chris Matthews' airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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