Presidential campaigns are hoarding money for a coming advertising blitz — mostly in Iowa and New Hampshire — during the final three months of the year on airwaves already saturated with candidate commercials.

The candidates are in the midst of a last-minute fundraising push, eager to have significant amounts of cash on hand by Sunday, the end of the third quarter and a milestone for measuring financial strength.

The first two quarters of the year, a gauge of fundraising and organizational ability, saw the leading candidates raise whopping sums and build vast networks of donors. But the next three months will be big-spending ones. How much candidates have in the bank will signal how well positioned they are to compete.

“The bigger the wallet the more spots you’ll be able to be able to buy,” said Evan Tracey, who tracks political advertising as chief operating officer for TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Popular air time for ads is local newscasts, but it’s too early yet for candidates to lock in their advertising slots. Campaigns that are advertising have placed orders only through the beginning of October.

So far, Democrats have been more aggressive at using the airwaves.

Altogether, Barack Obama leads the field with more than $2.7 million in ad spending in Iowa alone, according to data compiled by other presidential campaigns. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has spent nearly $2 million and Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent more than a $1 million. Christopher Dodd, Joe Biden and John Edwards also have aired ads.

Mitt Romney is the only Republican to buy television time. He has spent more than $6 million, with at least $2.7 million in Iowa and $1.7 million in New Hampshire, according to totals compiled by Tracey. Those numbers will increase as a result of new buys of air time in the two states through Oct. 2. Romney also is buying time in Florida and South Carolina and has spent at least $2 million on national advertising.

His advertising has largely been underwritten by his own wealth. The former Massachusetts governor, who has said his assets are worth between $190 million and $250 million, pumped nearly $9 million into his campaign in the first six months of the year and has said he has lent it more this quarter.

Lately, Romney has been branding himself as the scold of the Republican Party, calling in one ad for the GOP to embrace lower spending, higher ethics and tough immigration policies. He sits atop the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, though nationally he trails Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and John McCain.

Calculated attack ads by candidates seeking to shake up the field are likely in the next three months.

“The thing about the Republican side of the coin is that virtually every single one of the candidates has a glass jaw,” said GOP pollster and strategist Tony Fabrizio. “The question becomes when the punches start flying who is the guy who’s going to be able to put back together his glass jaw.”

McCain, trying to rebound from a dismal second quarter, is likely to devote his money to New Hampshire, where he won the presidential primary in 2000 and remains popular. But he is up against Romney and Giuliani, both of whom lead him in statewide polls. What’s more, his bank ledger needs to be in the black.

McCain’s fundraising has not met expectations, and exorbitant spending left the Vietnam veteran’s campaign all but broke by July.

“McCain needs to show that he has stabilized his spending and that he can still afford a middle seat on a commercial airline,” said Scott Reed, a GOP strategist who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.

Giuliani and Thompson might advertise in Iowa or New Hampshire to stay close to Romney. But they also are counting on later primaries.

Thompson is banking on South Carolina and Florida. Giuliani is looking to Florida and the Feb. 5 primaries in expensive media states like California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York.

“A lot of that would be spent after Jan. 1, because even if you had $20 million cash on hand, those states eat up a million dollars a week or two million,” Fabrizio said.

Democrats, on the other hand, are pouring resources into the early states, a sign that only more will come.

Obama has outspent every other candidate in the field in Iowa, but Clinton sits atop various state polls with Obama and Edwards close behind. Richardson’s ad spending has pulled him out of obscurity and into fourth place there.

Clinton has used her recently released health care plan to cast herself as an agent of change and get out from under the cloud of the failed health plan she championed in 1993-1994. In an ad now airing in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton portrays that debacle as a turning point that “changed our thinking.”

Obama has countered with his own health ad and has issued calls for public empowerment that evoke the failed 2003-2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean.

Edwards, meanwhile, hasn’t spent much on advertising in Iowa, though he campaigned there more than any other candidate. He came in second in the caucuses in 2004, behind John Kerry. A well-timed ad blitz could give him a surge.

Obama and Clinton, the top fundraisers in the entire presidential field, can afford to spend plenty in the state. But Iowa is crucial to Edwards and Richardson, and Dodd and Biden would need strong showings there to remain viable.

“The candidates who are making Iowa their first and last stand are all going to want to make their one spot count,” Tracey said. “Some of the time that everybody wants is going to be a little bit harder to get.”

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