John Stevens, Taneytown: In general, were people more interested in what would be best for them, or what would be best for the country as a whole?

Baer: That's a great question. Probably a little of both. On economic issues, if their personal situations weren't too dire, they generally seemed drawn to the candidate more in line with their ideology and way of thinking about the world. But in more extreme cases -- someone who was suddenly jobless, for instance -- their personal stories became more of a factor.

I can think of one man I interviewed in Wisconsin, for example, who had been laid off from his job at an auto parts factory. Although he was a social conservative, a Republican who had voted for Bush in 2000, he was now thinking of voting for Kerry.

Similarly, one of the classmates of Charles Wilkins, the soldier who was killed in Iraq in August, told me that, although she had been a lifelong Republican and had even worked for the Ohio GOP, she was now undecided because she was feeling the effects of the war so personally. On the flip side, another of his classmates said that while the death of her close friend made her rethink the war, she was sticking with Bush. She didn't think changing course in the middle of a war was a good idea and she liked the way he responded to the 9/11 attacks.

Sue, Cockeysville: Of the issues you reported on, which did you find people to be the most passionate about?

Baer: It's probably a tossup between the war in Iraq and cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion. In nearly every conversation I had with the families featured in the stories, as well as other people I interviewed in researching the articles, these subjects would come up even if we were talking about something else (like the economy or education).

People seem to have such strong convictions about both the war and these social issues that they have a hard time seeing or understanding any other point of view. I also think voters have passionate feelings about the war, especially those against it, because it spills over into a lot of other areas they care about, such as the deficit, America's standing in the world, and even issues of race and class (in terms of who's over in Iraq fighting this war).

Marquesha Martin, Baltimore: How will [the candidates] make sure that the unemployment rate stays low?

Baer: Both candidates have talked a lot about jobs and the economy, especially since unemployment is such a big issue in many of the battleground states. To find out what they're both saying, you might want to check out their Web sites and click on jobs/economy: www.georgewbush.com and www.johnkerry.com.

Mrs. Roberts, Bel Air: How can Sen. John Kerry maintain his credibility when he's stated that, on one hand, he would have invaded Iraq even knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction, then, turning around and stating that this was the wrong war at the wrong time and place? And people wonder why President Bush would make a face.

Baer: Kerry himself has conceded that he hasn't done a very good job of articulating his position on the war in Iraq, although he maintains that he's had a consistent one. His comment in August that he would have "voted for the authority" for Bush to wage the war even knowing no weapons of mass destruction would be found was especially hard to reconcile with his ongoing criticism of the war.

But in Kerry's mind, voting to give Bush the "authority" to go to war is far different from voting to go to war. He argues that he believed -- and still believes -- that Bush needed the authority to use force to strengthen the president's hand against Saddam Hussein and to present a united U.S. front. But Kerry has also said from the start that Bush should not have gone to war without first exhausting all diplomatic alternatives and without mobilizing international support or working with the United Nations.

In August, when he said he would have voted to give Bush the authority to wage war even knowing there were no WMD, he added: "I believe it's the right authority for a president to have," and he said he would have used that authority differently than Bush did.

Still, his somewhat obtuse answer made many Democrats groan and heightened the impression that Kerry was saying contradictory things about the Iraq war.

Lawrence, Baltimore: How can Kerry be trusted on matters of "global" proportions when he is incapable of taking any firm position and sticking with it?

Baer: Kerry contends that he's been very consistent and that his positions have been twisted and taken out of context by his opponent. Obviously, these are matters of opinion. One of the best ways to find out what the candidates have said on any number of issues is to go to their Web sites [see links above] and read their position papers, speeches, etc. That way, you read their comments in context and make your own judgments.

Baltimoresun.com staff: Your series focused on four issues -- gay marriage, guns, the economy and the Iraq war. Going forward, what other issues do you see as being major factors in people's decision-making process? Why?

Baer: I think health care is another issue voters are deeply concerned about, and one where there are clear differences between the two candidates. With health care costs on the rise and insurance coverage sometimes precarious, many voters count health care as one of their top concerns, probably one of their top three. (For details on the candidates' positions on health care, click here to read a piece by Julie Hirschfeld Davis that ran in the Perspective section of The Sun on Sept. 26.)

Another issue that I think will determine the way a lot of people vote is national/homeland security. Although much talk has centered on Iraq, voters in this first post-9/11 presidential election are thinking more broadly about which of the candidates will do a better job protecting the homeland and keeping them, and their children, safe.