WASHINGTON — President Bush's reelection campaign spent nearly $50 million in March -- much of it on television advertising -- the most ever in one month by a presidential candidate, according to a report the campaign filed Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission.
The report's release came as two new polls found Bush making gains over Democratic rival John F. Kerry despite weeks of White House difficulties over Iraq and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The surveys were taken after a major onslaught of television ads by the Bush campaign in 18 battleground states, but analysts said the advertising impact appeared limited.
"They got some bang for the buck, but I don't think they got, frankly, the bang for the buck they would have hoped for," said campaign finance expert Anthony Corrado of Colby College in Maine.
For TV advertising, Bush's campaign paid about $41 million in March to Maverick Media, a Texas firm run by ad consultant Mark McKinnon. For campaign expenses overall, Bush spent more in March than his Democratic opponent Al Gore spent in the entire primary season of 2000, Corrado said.
Even so, the Bush campaign ended March with $86.6 million in cash. All told, Bush has raised $186 million, by far the most ever in a presidential race, and spent $99 million since launching his campaign last year.
The campaign announced last week that it would scale back television advertising and limit it to spots attacking Kerry.
An aide to the Massachusetts senator said he spent a small fraction of what Bush put into television ads last month. The campaign said Kerry had raised $42.8 million in March, well above the $26.2 million brought in that month by Bush.
The Kerry campaign announced Tuesday that it had raised a total of $72 million, $50 million of it since January. In a statement filed Tuesday night, Kerry reported $32 million in cash on hand.
Kerry pollster Mark Mellman played down the latest poll findings favoring Bush in a memo made public by the campaign, saying they showed the race to be "stable and even" but undergoing fluctuations that will be common between now and the Nov. 2 vote.
A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday found Bush leading Kerry, 50% to 44%, among likely voters, while a Washington Post-ABC News Poll of registered voters showed Bush ahead, 48% to 43%. In both cases, the spread between the two candidates fell within the margin of error. Several other polls this month have found Kerry slightly ahead.
Beyond the head-to-head matchup, the Post-ABC poll found Bush running well ahead of Kerry on who is best fit to handle Iraq and the fight against terrorism, despite a surge in killings of U.S. troops in Iraq this month and accusations by former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke that Bush neglected terrorism until Sept. 11.
"As the conversation has turned to national security issues, even though the news isn't good, this is really on the president's turf," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
He suggested that Bush's improved ratings could also reflect the public's rallying behind the president when U.S. troops were in combat -- as well as domination of the news by Iraq and terrorism while Kerry's strong suits were domestic issues.
Jim Jordan, a former Kerry campaign advisor, said Bush's gains were "simply a factor of Kerry being much less well known. It's easy for the Bush campaign to peddle stereotypes about an unknown Democratic politician," namely as an issue straddler who raises taxes. But Kerry "can do an awful lot very quickly to undo the damage" once the public focuses more intensely on the presidential race, he said.
In a conference call with reporters, Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd said Tuesday the television ads "were only part of what the campaign is doing."
He said that "no matter how much money you raise, you don't have an unlimited amount of money" to spend.
Bush collected $10.1 million at fundraising events in March and $14.4 million through direct mail or phones.
He received donations from 199,225 new contributors in March, bringing the total number of people who have contributed to the campaign to 833,000, the campaign said.
"The grass-roots support Bush-Cheney '04 has received will help us carry President Bush's positive message to every voter," campaign manager Ken Mehlman said in a statement.
Bush received $272,550 in donations from employees of Morgan Stanley in March, making the securities firm the largest campaign donor so far, with a total of $504,525 in contributions, according to an analysis by Dwight L. Morris & Associates. Morgan Stanley CEO Philip Purcell is one of the 187 so-called Rangers, each of whom has collected $200,000 or more for the Bush campaign.
Bush's biggest base of support continues to be in Texas, where he was governor.