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Weak Burger King is in McDonald's crosshairs

Is McDonald's going for Burger King's jugular?

Executives of the world's largest restaurant chain laughed this week when an analyst asked them that question about their struggling fast-food rival _ and didn't deny it.

McDonald's widened the gap on Burger King with a turnaround year in 2003 that saw it boost U.S. sales sharply through new products, extended hours, a high-powered ad campaign and the slowing of its rapid expansion pace.

The No. 2 burger-seller, meanwhile, has had lackluster results. Burger King's same-store U.S. sales, measuring performance at established restaurants, fell 4.4 percent in the second half of 2003 after overall sales declined nearly 2 percent to $11.1-billion in the fiscal year ended June 30.

"With respect to the major competitor, you know it's in our blood here," Charlie Bell, McDonald's president and chief operating officer, said on the conference call, without naming its competitor based in Miami.

"We do know the one that you're talking about is vulnerable. And we're going to work hard to make us continually successful, and they'll have to play catch-up," Bell said.

A Burger King spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment.

A year removed from its worst financial quarter ever, one that prompted a change in leadership, McDonald's reported a $125.7-million profit in the fourth quarter and pledged to remodel 1,500 to 1,800 of its 13,000-plus U.S. restaurants in order to improve operations further.