Belief that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search) can beat President George W. Bush in November helped him capture his first Southern wins today — handily outperforming his Southern rivals in both the Virginia and Tennessee Democratic primaries.

Virginia

In the Virginia exit poll, a plurality (27 percent) said electability was the most important quality in a candidate.  Among these voters, Kerry won an overwhelming three-quarters of the vote, with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) coming in a distant second at 13 percent.  One in five said a candidate who “stands up for what he believes” was the top attribute and at 37 percent Kerry won among these voters too, with Edwards (19 percent), former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) (19 percent) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark (search) (12 percent) splitting the remaining support.

Edwards did well among those who said “cares about people like me” was the most important candidate quality (37 percent to Kerry’s 41 percent), and beat Kerry by two percentage points among the 15 percent citing “he has a positive message” as their top candidate attribute.

Kerry’s support was widespread, with strong wins among several key groups such as seniors (62 percent), blacks (64 percent), women (55 percent) and voters from military households (54 percent). In addition, he did well among both moderates (56 percent) and liberals (52 percent). 

The economy was the most important issue to Virginia voters today (chosen by 34 percent), followed by health care (20 percent), the war in Iraq (18 percent) and education (10 percent) — and Kerry won each of these groups.

Fully 89 percent said they think it is either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that if Kerry becomes the Democratic nominee he will beat Bush in November, while only 58 percent thought the same for Edwards.

Tennessee

As in Virginia, Kerry showed widespread strength in the Southern state of Tennessee today. 

Here again, the top candidate attribute was beating Bush, and Kerry won two-thirds of these voters. He didn't fare as well (34 percent), but still won, among those who wanted a candidate who “stands up for what he believes,” followed by Clark (23 percent), Edwards (19 percent) and Dean (12 percent).  Edwards won 40 percent of voters who said it was most important to have a candidate who “cares about people like me,” besting Kerry (29 percent) and Clark (19 percent).

As has been the case in previous primaries this year, voters are focused on domestic issues.  The economy tops the list of issue concerns (39 percent) in the Volunteer State, followed by health care (20 percent), the war in Iraq (15 percent) and education (nine percent).  Kerry wins every issue group.

About a quarter of Tennessee voters today were senior citizens and half of them backed Kerry, as did almost half of blacks (47 percent) and over half of white Catholics (52 percent).  Both Kerry (46 percent) and Edwards (25 percent) did better than retired Gen. Clark (19 percent) among voters from military households.

These exit polls were conducted for Fox News by Edison/Mitofsky.  The results are based on interviews with 1,685 Democratic primary voters in Virginia and 2,489 in Tennessee.

Margin of sampling error for Tennessee was plus or minus 3 percentage points for the overall sample, larger for subgroups. Margin of sampling error for Virginia was plus or minus 4 percentage points, larger for subgroups. 

Click below for more detailed results.

• Virginia, pdf

• Tennessee, pdf