After avoiding the state for weeks, Kerry campaigned hard in Virginia days ahead of the primary.
(CNN) -- Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won a decisive victory in Virginia over Southern natives John Edwards and Wesley Clark, supporting Kerry's claim that a Northerner can attract Southern voters.
Virginia's importance on the Democratic presidential primary calendar increased after South Carolina's February 3 primary. Edwards, a senator from neighboring North Carolina, convincingly beat Kerry in the Palmetto State, proving he could win a key state and buttressing Edwards' claim that he was the best Democratic candidate to compete in Southern states in the general election.
Clark, an Arkansas native, also got a little boost from the February 3 results. The retired general held a sliver of a lead over Edwards in the Oklahoma primary. (February 3 results)
Both candidates largely eschewed caucuses in Washington, Michigan and Maine, although Edwards did promise to "compete hard" in Michigan after his South Carolina win. Kerry handily won the caucuses in all three states. (February 7 results)
Clark and Edwards instead focused on their home turf in the South, namely the February 10 primaries in Virginia and Tennessee.
That set up a three-way showdown in Virginia with Kerry, who had the most momentum after winning almost everywhere but the Southeast.
For the Massachusetts senator, the Virginia and Tennessee contests gave him the opportunity to further his lead over his two chief rivals and prove he can win in the South.
For Edwards and Clark, February 10 was a chance to prove that they still belong in the race, especially with primaries in several delegate-heavy states upcoming.
"We could spend our time and money in Maine and Michigan, or we could make sure we get the delegates we need in Virginia and Tennessee and then battle it out [on February 17] in Wisconsin," an Edwards campaign operative told CNN a week before the primary.
Edwards had much catching up to do. Virginia state Democrats said Edwards found early success wooing voters from Virginia's rural Southside region but faced an uphill struggle to get support in more heavily populated areas to the north.
Clark built up the biggest campaign organization in the state, with 24 paid staffers and five offices in Richmond, Hampden Roads, Roanoke and Northern Virginia. The former NATO supreme commander also devoted ample financial resources to advertising, spending $1.1 million on ads in Virginia through January 31 and airing TV commercials continuously from mid-January to Election Day.
In one telling indication of Clark's Virginia organization, he purchased a whopping 16 tables at the state Democratic party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on February 7, while Edwards and most other candidates bought only three or four.
"We've got an incredibly strong basis of support, especially in the South," Clark said in late January.
But the Clark campaign hinted at financial struggles: A week before the primary, 240 staffers "voted" to forgo their salaries for a week to purchase ads, although field workers in Virginia (as well as Tennessee and Wisconsin) continued to collect their paychecks.
Kerry largely avoided Virginia in the weeks leading up to the February 10 primary, instead allocating his time and resources to states with more imminent contests such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Missouri and Arizona.
Yet his focus on other states, in many ways, helped the Massachusetts senator. His early success generated momentum that made him a definite contender in Virginia.
"It's pretty much a Kerry-Clark race here," one of Virginia's top Democrats said one week ahead of the primary.
After winning five states on February 3, Kerry did not advertise in Michigan, Washington and Maine but rather funneled money to air commercials in Virginia, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. (to reach voters in heavily Democratic northern Virginia), according to The Associated Press.
Kerry also won the endorsement of Mark Warner, Virginia's Democratic governor, three days ahead of the primary.
Clark and Edwards, meanwhile, bought ads in both February 10 states, although not in the much pricier metropolitan D.C. television market.
Next to Michigan, Virginia is the biggest prize (in terms of delegates) on the Democratic calendar before the 10-state contests on March 2. Virginia will send 98 delegates to July's national convention in Boston, Massachusetts; 82 of them are at stake in the February 10 primary.
Politically, Virginia generally leans Republican. Nine of its 11 congressmen and both senators belong to the GOP. But Democrats got a big boost in 2001, when voters elected Warner as governor.
Beyond Kerry, Clark and Edwards, the other candidates don't factor much into the Virginia picture. After losing his front-runner standing in Iowa and New Hampshire, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean retooled his strategy by focusing on Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin while largely avoiding Virginia and most other states
Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton, are trailing far behind in the national polls and are not expected to break through in Virginia.