Edwards was all smiles after claiming victory in South Carolina, a contest he'd described earlier as a must-win.
(CNN) -- Sen. John Edwards won the South Carolina Democratic primary after campaigning as a native son who understood the values and struggles of the state's residents, CNN projects.
Edwards -- a senator from North Carolina but born in Seneca, South Carolina -- was a seemingly constant presence in the Palmetto State. He was the first candidate to hire staffers there and a persistent campaigner who touted his roots as a "local boy." (Full results)
With endorsements from Columbia Mayor Bob Coble and several state legislators, Edwards consistently found himself atop statewide polls heading into the February 3 primary.
The only candidate who spent more time in South Carolina was Rev. Al Sharpton, whose campaign lagged nationally but found life among the state's large African-American population.
Meanwhile, the landscape around them shifted relentlessly.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts rode perhaps the most extreme political roller coaster.
Last summer, the state figured prominently in Kerry's campaign strategy, which leaned on getting support from the state's more than 400,000 veterans.
The senator officially launched his campaign September 2, 2003, in front of the World War II aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, now part of a maritime museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
But after September 12, when Kerry held a town hall meeting in Columbia, he didn't set foot in the state for more than four months.
In the meantime, his campaign sagged nationally and in South Carolina, hitting a low point when he fired his campaign manager November 10. South Carolina polls in late 2003 had Kerry a disappointing fifth.
But in the new year, Kerry's momentum shifted drastically, punctuated by his dramatic come-from-behind win in the January 19 Iowa caucuses. A South Carolina poll released shortly thereafter put him in a solid second place, not far behind Edwards. (Sharpton had varying levels of support in polls, from a strong third to much weaker showings.)
After his Iowa breakthrough, Kerry snared one of the state's most high-profile endorsements: veteran Sen. Fritz Hollings. A week later, after the New Hampshire primary, popular African-American congressman Rep. Jim Clyburn backed his campaign.
But Kerry also stumbled some, earning scorn from former state party chair Dick Harpootlian and others when he suggested, shortly before winning the January 27 New Hampshire primary, that a Democrat could win the general election without winning any Southern states.
While Kerry went up, Howard Dean -- for months the front-runner nationally and in South Carolina -- went down.
An early January survey of South Carolinians put Dean on top with 12 percent, followed by Edwards and Clark with 9 percent each, and Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut further behind.
Don Fowler, a former chair of the state party and Democratic National Committee, said in mid-January that the former Vermont governor had a strong field organization in the state.
But a week later, Harpootlian deemed Dean "nonexistent" in the state race, an assertion backed up by his fifth-place standing in a post-Iowa poll.
While Dean did visit South Carolina days before the primary -- attending the January 29 debate in Greenville, with the six other candidates -- he did not run new advertisements in-state and instead focused on post-February 3 contests, particularly Michigan.
Not long after entering the race in September 2003, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark was a major player -- in some minds, a favorite -- in South Carolina.
He positioned himself as the best of two other front-runners, with the Southern roots of Edwards and the military pedigree of Kerry.
But after the Iowa caucuses, an aide said Edwards' momentum prompted Clark to back away from the South Carolina fray. Clark nonetheless did campaign hard in the state after the New Hampshire primary.
Lieberman and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, meanwhile, appeared to be on the outside looking in.
While Kerry, Edwards, Dean and Clark all stood among the national front-runners in late January, the anomaly in South Carolina was Sharpton's standing as a legitimate contender.
In January polls, the civil rights activist had up to 20 percent of the vote -- not enough to win the state, Rep. Clyburn said, but certainly enough to make him a major factor in the race.
Sharpton's inroads reflected his intense campaigning (he was in the state before, during and after the New Hampshire primary) and South Carolina's large black population -- about 30 percent of state residents and a far higher ratio of Democratic voters.
All the major candidates reached out to African Americans in the state, the first in the 2004 primary cycle with a sizable minority presence.
Several so-called "Buffalo Soldiers" -- a group of political activists named for the U.S. Army's all-black regiments in the 19th century -- went door-to-door for Clark in South Carolina, who also backed efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds.
Edwards looked to emulate former President Clinton, who is very popular in the black community, as an attentive, white Southerner committed to civil rights.
While all the candidates have publicly supported affirmative action, the thorny issue has reared its head in South Carolina. Four days before the primary, Clark told a predominantly African-American audience in Columbia that Kerry had misrepresented his own record on affirmative action, pointing to a 1992 quote in which Kerry reportedly called such policies "inherently limited" and "divisive." The Massachusetts denied the claim, accusing Clark of manipulating his words.
With a week to go, Edwards had the most on the line in South Carolina, telling CNN that his candidacy hinged on his ability to win the state.
Late January polls showed him leading, with Kerry, Sharpton and Clark within reach of a South Carolina win.
But in one survey, more than 30 percent of respondents opted for a fourth choice -- "undecided" -- giving candidates both hope and uncertainty entering February 3.