In a bellwether state such as Missouri, an early presidential primary would be fiercely competitive -- but native son Dick Gephardt's Democratic rivals just may be no-shows in the "Show-Me" state.

The 14-term representative has already secured the backing of nearly every major Democratic activist in the state, and Gephardt's competitors for the presidential nomination could decide to focus their energies elsewhere; South Carolina, a crucial early test, and Arizona also hold their primaries on Feb. 3.

"Resources, which are probably going to be scarce, are probably going to go into other primaries rather than Missouri for the other candidates," said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "I don't think there's any reason to go after Gephardt in Missouri."

If they decide to pass on Missouri, it wouldn't be the first time candidates virtually ignored a crucial state. In 1992, Democratic presidential hopefuls figured Iowa was a given for home-state Sen. Tom Harkin, who swept the precinct caucuses but failed to muster the momentum for subsequent primary states.

Still, the candidates haven't completely ruled out the Missouri primary in which the winner captures 74 delegates and 14 are up for grabs.

A spokesman for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said his boss will "play hard for the delegates he can get."

The campaign of former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun is counting on political events in Illinois and Iowa "that bleed over into the Missouri media market," said spokeswoman Kitty Kurth. "I don't think she'll be a stranger."

Even if they don't anticipate a victory in Missouri, Gephardt's rivals may try to force him to spend time and money in his home state. Well-known in the St. Louis area, Gephardt is less familiar in the western region.

"He may well win Missouri, but I don't think it's going to be a shutout," said Dale Neumann, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "Some people don't think Missouri is necessarily a lock for Gephardt. Some folks would like to demonstrate that they can beat Dick Gephardt on his own turf."

For its part, the Gephardt campaign isn't taking anything for granted.

"We're going to roll up our sleeves and work as hard as we have in every other campaign," said Jason Norton, Gephardt's Missouri campaign director.