A wealthy candidate's expenditure of up to $2 million on early TV advertising is reshaping the landscape of the race for mayor of Philadelphia.

The impact of the money spent by millionaire Tom Knox surfaced yesterday in several places:

Newly filed campaign-finance reports showed that even in the midst of his ad blitz, Knox had $3.4 million on hand as of Dec. 31, more than twice as much as his closest rival. And that doesn't count his pledge to spend up to $10 million more of his own fortune on this, his first race for public office.

A new poll, albeit with a hefty margin of error, said Knox has vaulted from a 1 percent showing in November all the way to second place among five candidates in the May 15 Democratic primary field, behind U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.

Knox's apparent momentum threatened to further fray the city's new campaign-finance limits, already facing court challenges. City Councilman Jim Kenney said he would introduce legislation to undo the limits - which are among the nation's strictest and were meant to address City Hall's notorious pay-to-play culture - saying they have given Knox an "unfair" advantage.

In a letter to donors, Fattah said the Knox expenditures may force him to dip into his congressional campaign fund after all. Fattah had previously vowed to not use that money for his mayoral run. He wrote to ask donors' permission to use their money in the race.

"Knox's money changed the dynamics of the race," pollster Terry Madonna said yesterday.

Campaign records filed yesterday show Knox, who lent his campaign $5 million, has pulled in an additional $500,000 from donors around the region.

The candidate with the second-biggest bank account, former Councilman Michael Nutter, has less than half that. Trailing last among the fund-raisers is the leader in the polls, Fattah, who reported $391,429 cash on hand as of Dec. 31, though he says he has raised another $300,000 since then.

All told, the five candidates have raised a total of $9.6 million as they sprint toward May 15.

Knox's showing in the Keystone Poll, released yesterday, was 22 percent among the city's registered Democrats, to 26 percent for front-runner Fattah. Another 22 percent said they were undecided.

All of which suggested the contest is still wide open.

"Usually, this is a time when people would start to be disqualified," said media consultant Neil Oxman, who worked on six mayoral campaigns between 1983 and 1999. In contrast with previous contests, Oxman said, "This race continues to remain amazingly competitive."

The pollster, Madonna, said the race was still "fluid" and called the survey a "momentary snapshot," noting that it is early in the campaign and large numbers of city voters have not heard of some of the candidates, much less formed opinions. Half of the residents polled, for instance, said they had not heard of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the longtime city Democratic Party chairman who last week announced his campaign for mayor.

The poll sampled only 252 Democrats, and its margin of error for the candidate comparisons was just over 6 percentage points. Survey results were based on telephone interviews conducted during a five-day stretch, starting Jan. 24, by Franklin and Marshall College's Center for Opinion Research.

In the survey, 12 percent of respondents said they would vote for Nutter; 10 percent named State Rep. Dwight Evans of Northwest Philadelphia; and 8 percent supported Brady.

The annual finance reports, filed yesterday with the city Board of Elections, also indicated early candidate strength.

For instance, almost a fourth of Brady's funds came from seven political action committees that donated $20,000 apiece - the maximum under the city's new rules. These donors included his own congressional campaign committee; a committee run by the city Democratic Party, which he chairs; and a committee run by City Councilwoman Carol Campbell, who is secretary of the city Democratic Party.

Other donors included former City Council President George X. Schwartz, Brady's mentor and former boss whose political career was ended by the Abscam scandal; he gave Brady $5,000. So did State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), who had urged Brady to run.

Fattah was ahead in the poll but trailed his House colleague, Brady, in fund-raising. The Fattah team downplayed the disparity.

"His need to be able to raise money is not as dramatic as that for other people," said Fattah consultant Tom Lindenfeld. After all, he said, Fattah has consistently led in polls, leaving his rivals to deal with the Knox factor.

Other Fattah aides pointed to the $450,097 in cash available to Fattah in his congressional campaign account. Fattah yesterday sent out a letter asking donors' permission to transfer the cash to his mayoral committee.

Fattah spokesman Solomon Jones said the candidate was asking his congressional donors to let him move their money into Fattah's mayoral fund "due to the changes that have taken place during . . . this campaign, including conflicting legal opinions on campaign-finance limits and a candidate who is willing to donate $15 million of his own money."

Evans, meanwhile, touted that 87 percent of his money came from individual donors, as opposed to PACs. "That's why I will win this race, because it's more owned by the people," he said.

But Nutter's finance reports were even thicker than Evans' - suggesting that he also had a high number of individual donors. For months, he has been disciplined about raising money, even declining to talk to reporters while he is scheduled to call potential donors from his sixth-floor campaign office at 15th and Chestnut Streets.

As for Republicans, no major candidate has yet emerged, although GOP city leaders are expected to meet next week to select and endorse someone.

Despite the gold rush, this mayor's race could be, overall, less costly than past contests, thanks to the city's new campaign-finance caps, which limit individuals to $5,000 donations, and political committees to $20,000.

For instance, unlike in past election years, there were relatively few fund-raising dollars donated from Philadelphia's large pool of wealthy lawyers. But a new crack appeared yesterday in the system.

Kenney, who voted in Council for the campaign caps, is authoring a bill to immediately abolish limits for mayoral candidates. Because the new rules don't apply to self-financers like Knox, there is an uneven playing field, he said.

"I don't think we should have this unintended consequence of handcuffing every legitimate candidate," said Kenney, who supports Brady. He planned to introduce the legislation today.

"As time goes on I'm watching TV and I'm seeing Tom Knox, Tom Knox, Tom Knox," he said. Other candidates "should have a right to have the sufficient amount of resources to have the in-depth and vision discussion that this campaign needs," Kenney said.

Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.