Soon after Gephardt dropped out, Kerry campaigned hard in Missouri -- and later celebrated with a decisive victory.
(CNN) -- Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry convincingly won the Missouri Democratic presidential primary, a race that former candidate Rep. Dick Gephardt was once expected to easily win.
Gephardt, St. Louis's favorite son and its congressman since 1974, dropped out the race after his fourth-place finish in the January 19 Iowa caucuses. Before Iowa, though, Gephardt appeared a viable contender for the Democratic presidential nomination -- not to mention he was considered a shoo-in to win his home state's primary.
Polls showed Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean battling neck-and-neck for first place in Iowa, home to 2004's first binding presidential election.
So, with Gephardt very much in the hunt nationally, the other candidates seemed to be staying away from Missouri, pouring little to no money into advertising or campaigning.
But days before the Iowa caucuses, new polls hinted at strains in the Gephardt and Dean campaigns and popular surges for Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
It all came crashing down in Iowa -- and the Missouri race, just as quickly, opened up.
Gephardt finished a distant and disappointing fourth in Iowa and dropped out of the presidential race a day later, making Missouri a critical destination on the Democratic primary slate. (Full story)
The most populous state to date in the election cycle, Missouri has more Democratic delegates, 74, tied to its open primary than any state holding a primary or caucuses before or on February 3. (Election calendar)
The "Show Me State's" location in Mid-America, a "swing" region in national races, intensified the sudden campaign frenzy in Missouri.
Missouri was Kerry's first stop after winning the January 27 New Hampshire primary, and he was the first candidate in the 2004 campaign to air a commercial in the St. Louis market.
Edwards also visited Missouri a week before the contest, as did retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark.
Following losses to Kerry in Iowa and New Hampshire and a shakeup in his campaign team that included the replacement of campaign manager Joe Trippi, Dean shifted strategies. Admitting he was unlikely to win Missouri, he decided not to run new ads there and instead focused on post-February 3 contests, Michigan and Washington in particular.
Regardless, one Missouri state party operative gave Dean little chance, given his bitter battles with Gephardt.
"Voters here are not going to forgive the way Dean treated Gephardt in Iowa," a top state party official told CNN a week before the primary, predicting no state leaders would back the former Vermont governor.
Even after dropping out, Rep. Gephardt was at the center the Missouri race: This time, the focus was on his endorsement. But the former House Democratic leader refused to support a candidate until after the February 3 contest.
But that didn't stop Democratic hopefuls from trying to tap into his popularity in the state.
Kerry hired former Gephardt chief of staff Steve Elmendorf as well as Roy Temple, an aide to late Gov. Mel Carnahan. (Two former senators from Missouri -- Carnahan's widow, Jean, and Thomas Eagleton -- and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay endorsed Kerry.)
Edwards brought aboard two Gephardt veterans, Mike Kelley and Julie Gibson, and received backing from Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell and Rep. Ike Skelton.