All four remaining candidates -- (left to right) Kucinich, Sharpton, Edwards and Kerry -- debated in Los Angeles five days before the state primary.
(CNN) -- After a long, up-and-down Democratic campaign, Sen. John Kerry handily won California's March 2 primary, cementing his grip on the party's presidential nomination.
The race in the delegate-rich Golden State began earlier than most, with Howard Dean getting a head start on the pack by attending fund-raisers for himself and then-Gov. Gray Davis as early as August 2002 -- months before any other Democrat had entered the race.
Kerry wasn't far behind, raising funds in San Diego for his 2002 Senate race in October, several months before he made official his presidential aspirations.
When the campaign began to take shape in 2003, better-known names like 2000 Democratic vice presidential designate Sen. Joe Lieberman headed up the field. Lesser-known political quantities like Dean, meanwhile, fought to gain traction.
Slowly, the former Vermont governor picked up celebrity endorsements from director Rob Reiner and actor Martin Sheen (who plays an ex-New England governor-turned-president on NBC's "The West Wing") and gained ground on his competitors. His spirited opposition to the Iraq war and Bush's domestic policies resonated among many dissatisfied Democratic voters.
By September 2003, a Field Research Corporation poll showed Dean as the clear front-runner in California with 23 percent support, followed by Lieberman with 15 percent.
Around this time, most all the candidates made regular visits to the Golden State, ostensibly to back Davis as voters mulled an initiative to recall him.
The presidential landscape shifted again when retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark entered the race. An October 15 California Field poll showed Clark had leapfrogged the pack, placing 3 percentage points ahead of both Dean and Lieberman.
Yet Dean regained momentum in subsequent months, appearing on numerous magazine covers and securing major endorsements, including that of former Vice President Al Gore.
By mid-January 2004 -- days before the Iowa caucuses -- a new Field poll indicated Dean (at 25 percent support) held a solid 5-point lead over Clark in California. Lieberman ranked third with 12 percent, followed by Kerry (7 percent), Gephardt (6 percent) and Edwards, Kucinich and Sharpton at 3 percentage points each.
Then came the first binding contest, the Iowa caucuses, which set off a chain of events that reshaped the race. Kerry surged to win while Dean placed a disappointing third; the ex-governor never recovered, not winning in New Hampshire or anywhere else
As the Massachusetts senator steamrolled to take 19 of 21 contests entering Super Tuesday, competitors dropped out one by one -- first Lieberman, then Clark, and finally Dean on February 18. By then Kerry, in single digits a month earlier, had a sizable lead in California.
A February 24 Los Angeles Times poll showed Kerry with 56 percent support among likely primary voters, trouncing Edwards with 24 percent. Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton both scored in the low-single digits, as they have for most of the national campaign.
Kerry's sudden California success wasn't all due to momentum. He'd spent more days campaigning in the Golden State than any other candidate, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, and had 25 state staffers and hundreds more volunteers by mid-February.
When Kerry couldn't make it west, he dispatched his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. She spent three days in California a week before the primary and accepted the endorsement of the state firefighters association on behalf of her husband, the San Jose Mercury News reported.
After getting early backing from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Kerry got the support of state treasurer Phil Angelides, state controller Steve Westly, Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and other top state Democrats.
Edwards made high-profile visits to the Golden State, including raising $500,000 in two Southern California fund-raisers and appearing on "The Tonight Show" in early February.
But the senator from North Carolina didn't officially make California a priority until after his strong second-place surge in the February 17 Wisconsin primary.
After that contest, Edwards opened offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. His wife Elizabeth soon set off to campaign in Santa Clara and Sacramento, and the senator himself stressed the economy and environment while stumping before Super Tuesday.
"It's an uphill climb, but we wouldn't be coming here if we didn't think we could do well," said Edwards spokesman Roger Salazar a week before the primary, according to The Associated Press. "We really do think his message of optimism, of lifting people up, resonates well here."
While both top-tier candidates campaigned hard in California, neither aired ads because the regional media market, said Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, was "definitely too expensive."