Since emerging from a coast-to-coast slate of presidential contests on Feb. 5, Democrat Barack Obama has significantly outspent rival Hillary Rodham Clinton on television commercials, providing a crucial edge that helped push him to a rapid succession of primary and caucus victories.
Obama's ability to blanket the airwaves -- and repeatedly start statewide television ad campaigns a week ahead of Clinton -- has been the defining advantage to emerge from the commanding fundraising lead he staked out in January.
In the nine days following Super Tuesday, the senator from Illinois spent about $13.5 million on television ads, compared with Clinton's $8.3 million, according to a media consultant not connected with any campaign who collected the figures and shared them on the condition of anonymity. In Wisconsin, which will vote on Tuesday, Obama ads monopolized the airwaves for six days before Clinton responded with her own spot.
"Since the beginning of this race, he's always relied on getting that big head start, and he continues to do that," said Evan Tracey, the chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which analyzes political advertising. "It's hard to make up for that."
Signs are emerging, though, that the Clinton team recognizes the strategic disadvantage the advertising imbalance has created. In Ohio and Texas, two crucial contests set for March 4, both campaigns began advertising at the same time and have been spending about $50,000 a day.
Clinton has invested in several new ads -- including one that directly attacks Obama -- that will air in small and large markets in Wisconsin. And while Obama has purchased television time in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, Clinton has made large advertising buys in virtually every Texas market, from Amarillo to McAllen.
That advertising onslaught is now possible, key Clinton supporters said, because the campaign's fundraising has rebounded since January, a month in which Obama raised $32 million to Clinton's $13.5 million.
"At this stage of the campaign, they're back on equal footing," said Mike Stratton, a Denver political strategist and Clinton fundraiser.
In recent days, the Clinton team has described an online fundraising resurgence that is putting $1 million a day into the coffers of the senator from New York. The campaign has also pressed into service former president Bill Clinton, holding a rapid succession of fundraisers in Washington, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, New York and Florida over nine days this month.
"We're in the unique situation of having a spouse who is capable of bringing in dollars on a very aggressive basis," said Hassan Nemazee, a New York financier who is one of the Clinton campaign's finance chairmen.
Several media analysts and campaign advisers said yesterday that Obama's substantial advertising edge played a critical role in his ability to rack up wins in the contests that followed Super Tuesday voting on Feb. 5.
Kenneth Goldstein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who monitors political advertising, said television ad campaigns are the most effective when one candidate is on the air and the other is not. Obama has regularly had the chance to define himself to the electorate without competition.
That was critical for Obama, Goldstein said, because he is not nearly as well known as Clinton. Alan Solomont, a top fundraiser for Obama, said the campaign has always recognized that Clinton's near-universal name recognition is a daunting challenge.
"We're running against a quasi-incumbent who's known everywhere," he said. "In virtually every state, we start from a standing position. We essentially start behind. That's why being able to advertise is so important."
Robert Zimmerman, a New York public relations executive and key Clinton supporter, said that any assumption that Obama's advertising advantage will prove decisive moving forward represents "an inside-the-Beltway mind-set."
"There are so many ways the messages are getting through," Zimmerman said. "With free media, news coverage, Internet ads, rallies, direct mail -- I think this whole notion that the number of ads you have up determines one's viability, it's obsolete thinking."
Clinton's latest advertising push has for the first time included negative spots. Two ads have knocked Obama for declining to debate her in Wisconsin. Obama responded to the first negative ad with a spot that said, "After 18 debates, with two more coming, Hillary says Barack Obama is ducking debates? It's the same old politics of phony charges and false attacks."
The Clinton team fired back yesterday with a commercial that says, "Barack Obama still won't agree to debate in Wisconsin. And now he's hiding behind false attack ads. Maybe he doesn't want to explain why his health-care plan leaves out 15 million people and Hillary's covers everyone."
Goldstein said he was surprised that Clinton has only now started to aggressively attack her opponent. He compared the circumstances to the 2004 contest between President Bush and John F. Kerry. Bush was far better known and used his ads to attack the senator from Massachusetts. Kerry ran mostly positive spots, Goldstein said.
"At this point, this campaign is really about Barack Obama now. He's still not as well known. Her job really is to define him," he said. Until now, Obama's financial edge has not allowed her to do that.