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Issues in a polarized America

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, iftheir personal situations weren't too dire, they generally seemed drawn tothe candidate more in line with their ideology and way of thinking aboutthe 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 laidoff 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 hadeven worked for the Ohio GOP, she was now undecided because she was feelingthe effects of the war so personally. On the flip side, another of hisclassmates said that while the death of her close friend made her rethinkthe war, she was sticking with Bush. She didn't think changing course inthe 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 likegay marriage and abortion. In nearly every conversation I had with thefamilies featured in the stories, as well as other people I interviewed inresearching the articles, these subjects would come up even if we weretalking 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, especiallythose against it, because it spills over into a lot of other areas theycare about, such as the deficit, America's standing in the world, and evenissues of race and class (in terms of who's over in Iraq fighting thiswar).

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 Websites 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 thiswas the wrong war at the wrong time and place? And people wonder whyPresident Bush would make a face.

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

But in Kerry's mind, voting to give Bush the "authority" to go to waris far different from voting to go to war. He argues that he believed -- and still believes -- that Bush needed the authority to use force tostrengthen the president's hand against Saddam Hussein and to present aunited U.S. front. But Kerry has also said from the start that Bush shouldnot have gone to war without first exhausting all diplomatic alternativesand without mobilizing international support or working with the UnitedNations.

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

Still, his somewhat obtuse answer made many Democrats groan andheightened the impression that Kerry was saying contradictory things aboutthe 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 arematters of opinion. One of the best ways to find out what the candidateshave 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 incontext 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 asbeing 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. Withhealth care costs on the rise and insurance coverage sometimes precarious,many voters count health care as one of their top concerns, probably one oftheir 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.

Political analysts have said that the "soccer moms" of previous electionshave been replaced by "security moms." And the candidates have spent a lotof time trying to convince voters that keeping Americans safe from furtherterrorist attacks will be their top priority.

Joel D. Brusewitz, Baltimore: I have heard many people suggest that President Bush is responsible for the largest deficit in our nation's history, while at thesame time cutting funding for Social Security and Medicare. I'd like tohear the facts about the deficit and the aggregate amount of spending onsocial programs in the past four years.

Baer: It is true the deficit has grown to a record high on President Bush'swatch, projected to be $445 billion in 2005 by the Office of Management andBudget, the White House budget office, and estimated to be $535 billion in2005 by the Congressional Budget Office. Some of the rise is due to theworsening economy during much of the Bush administration and for spendingin response to the 9/11 attacks. Some is also due to Bush's two rounds oftax cuts and the costs of the war in Iraq.

Bush has cut the rate of non-defense, non-homeland security spending from where it was during the Clinton administration, but not in Medicare or Social Security. Hesupported the expansion of Medicare to provide a prescription drug benefit.

Sue Allison, Lusby: Neither candidate is addressing the No Child Left Behind Act to my satisfaction. The only difference they seem to have is on whether ornot the misguided law is fully funded. But does either candidate reallybelieve that public schools can achieve absolute perfection (100% ofstudents scoring in the proficient range of standardized tests in math andreading by 2014)? Do they really believe that this is what parents wantfor their children's education -- annual hysteria over extremely flawed,misleading, narrowly focused, dumbed-down standardized tests?

Do they really believe that we want our public schools to be cleared out and replaced with private management companies and state employees when ourschool administrators don't achieve what is virtually a statisticalimpossibility with regard to test score increases? Where is thediscussion of crumbling facilities and the lack of course offerings inscience [and] the arts?

Baer: Education is another issue where voters have very strong opinions and where there is much divide over Bush's policies, specifically his No Child LeftBehind Act. You're right -- both candidates have talked some abouteducation during the campaign, but mostly in broad strokes.

Kerry supported No Child Left Behind, but, as you point out, has been criticizing the Bush administration for falling $27 billion short of funding it. The Democratalso says he believes the act places too much emphasis on testing andbelieves other measures, such as attendance and parental satisfaction,should be considered. But neither candidate is going into much detail intothe kinds of issues you're bringing up.

Zalee Harris, Prince George's County: I want the candidates to talk about education in detail -- not about how much money [is] spent or where money went. I want to know how each candidate plans to ensure that minorities and those with special education needs are expected to master subject-matter academics and close the manufactured achievement gap.

More specifically, I want to know when the government is going to removenon-academic High Stakes from our classrooms and free our teachers to teachJohnny and Twanna how to read, compute, and think without socialindoctrination. I want Johnny and Twanna to learn the U.S. Constitution, be free to select courses that satisfy their own dreams, and be allowed to learn at theirpace.

I want to return local control to parents and [the] community, without dictatingparental involvement. Question? How is it that members of Congress decidedthat protecting marriage should be left up to each state, i.e., their claimthat by federally protecting marriage they are violating the 10th Amendmentof the U.S. Constitution, when since 1965 Congress has controlled publiceducation, which should also be dealt with at the state level and isclearly a violation of the 10th Amendment? America deserves an answer tothis question.

Baer: You raise a lot of powerful questions. Many educators and state and local officials agree with you, for instance, that Bush's Leave No Child BehindAct, a federal mandate for new math and reading standards, infringes onstates' rights, even though the bill was passed with broad bipartisansupport in Congress.

Michael Dobak, Mayo: Why are third-party candidates routinely ignored by the major media? It amazes me that even though they gain ballot access, most mediaoutlets won't even acknowledge that these candidates exist.

Baer: It's relatively easy to get on the ballot in a number of states so that'snot necessarily a measure of someone's seriousness as a candidate. AndRalph Nader has received some attention, probably far more than his 2 or 3percentage points in the polls would warrant. But the fact is, we have ascarce resource -- space in the newspaper and also the time and energy ofreporters.

In a closely fought election like this one, we try to focusthose resources on the two candidates, one of whom will become the nextpresident. Admittedly, it is a kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma, but forthird-party candidates to prove they are viable candidates, they have tofind ways to broaden their base, raise money and demonstrate that they havereal support. It may not seem fair or right, but in the two-party systemthat we have, it's very difficult for others to break through.

Dan, Baltimore: Would you consider writing an article about the impacts ofhomosexual partners adopting and raising children?

Baer: As there are more and more gay and lesbian couples raising children, that's an issue newspapers might very well write about.

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