WELL, IF WE needed proof that money matters and TV works, Tom Knox's money for TV ads certainly makes the case.

The mayoral candidate with the charisma of a catfish but the dough of a duke went from total unknown last year to serious contender today.

And once you get past the obvious fact that his cash and omnipresent ads are solely responsible for a heady showing in a new poll (second only to front-runner Chaka Fattah and well ahead of the rest of the field), the question becomes: Holy crap, can this guy actually win?!

Any other year, the answer is no. The answer, in fact, is hell, no!

He has no base. He's not part of the system. He's white. He hasn't paid political dues. He's just a loner rich guy. And he's personality-challenged.

Plus, money often ain't enough. Marty Weinberg had money and lots of backing, and he couldn't win.

But, listen, kids, it's early.

Knox is where he is because he's delivering unfiltered messages to voters while other candidates scrape for money and claw for media attention on issues.

He is where he is because his messages seem to connect with people. My favorite? The ad saying that when he joined the Navy at 16 he "sent his pay home to his mother to help feed his brothers."

That has to play in the neighborhoods.

There's also his commitment to drug rehab, having lost an adult brother to drugs, his petition to allow the city to write its own gun laws (Keystone Poll says crime, drugs and violence are the city's biggest problem), and his own public-housing-to-penthouse story.

So Knox has moved from shadows to limelight.

But here's the thing.

Polling at this stage is only name ID. Knox just bought it. At least for now, more so than Bob Brady, Dwight Evans or Michael Nutter. Fattah, because of his distinctive name and his TV newscaster wife, already has it.

Two political operatives tell me Knox faces big challenges.

"It's easier to get from zero to 60 than from 60 to 100," says Dan Fee. "Right now he's at 60. The question is, can he get to the next level?"

Howard Cain says, "So far it's total reliance on ads, and he gets a free ride because he's out there all alone. Soon, though, he'll have company and there will come tough questions on his plans for education, for economic development, and then we'll see how he compares to others."

Also, limelights draw fire.

Look for knocks on Knox for past dabbling in payday lending, which can be cast as predatory (Knox says one of his companies was in it briefly but got out). Look for questions about his service to the city. Look, in other words, for the usual hardball politics.

But if I'm right and this year is different - because the candidates' racial diversity and appeal dilutes normal race-based voting and because campaign donation curbs limit the reach of most campaigns - the usual might not apply.

Knox, who has already spent $2 million-plus on TV, says he'll consider spending up to $15 million of his own money. This could be three to five times more than his opponents, and make a real difference.

The election is 14 weeks away. Today, it's a two-man race. That changes when Brady, Evans and Nutter go on TV to tell their stories. But Fattah and Knox won't sit still. And given that Knox already is where he is (and, remember, this polling sample is small; he could be in the lead) maybe we'll see further proof that money matters and TV works. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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