Joi and Marshall James, Baltimore: My husband and I are very excited about Anthony McCarthy running for office. We were big fans of his program at WYPR and have followed his career for many years. I read in your paper that he is running against the three people who are currently in the seats. Does that make his getting elected an impossibility? You do not hear about incumbents losing very often. But my husband points out that Anthony has name recognition and relationships with a lot of politicians.

Nitkin: Nothing is impossible in politics. You are correct that incumbents don't often lose legislative races, but it has been known to happen. Veterans sometimes get tired and don't campaign aggressively, and challengers can be hungrier and harder working.

Under Maryland's political system, state Senate districts each contain three House of Delegate seats, and the four lawmakers (or sometimes newcomers) often run together as a slate. Both parties try to field slates. McCarthy, a Democrat, is seeking a seat in the 44th legislative district in Baltimore. In 2002, Sen. Verna Jones of the 44th received 16,135 votes in the Democratic primary, and was the highest vote-getter in a slate that included incumbent delegates Ruth M. Kirk (14,102 votes); Keith E. Haynes (12,607 votes) and Jeffrey A. Paige (12,068 votes). The large drop-off in votes between Sen. Jones and Del. Paige -- which is not uncommon in legislative districts -- suggests some weakness in support for the delegates, and means an opportunity for McCarthy, who is well-known as a radio host and commentator. McCarthy's chances would be greatly increased, however, if Jones were to put him on her slate.

Josh, Columbia: Could you put on your odds maker's hat and handicap the 3rd Congressional District race?

Nitkin: Sen. Paula Hollinger received the endorsement of EMILY's List last week, which is a big boost to her already strong campaign. (The acronym stands for "early money is like yeast," and the group's money goes to political candidates who support abortion rights.) Former Baltimore health commissioner Peter Beilenson posted an impressive fundraising total in the most recent filing period, which also puts him in the top tier of candidates.

Attorney John Sarbanes has a well-known family name, but we won't be able to judge the strength of his effort until we see his fundraising and organization efforts. Investment banker Oz Bengur is working hard to make himself a contender, but still has a ways to go. The potential entry of Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens into the race would change things significantly.

You may have noticed I'm not giving actual odds here in the Democratic primary (no Republicans have gotten in). That would be foolish. With such a crowded field (I didn't mention every candidate) the race will be decided by a very few votes -- certainly single-digit percentage points. So, even if I had an odds maker's hat, I wouldn't trust what it told me. Most experts say the race is wide open.

Mike, Perry Hall: Why doesn't The Sun report any of the good that the governor and the other Republicans are doing in this state? Statewide unemployment is almost 2 [percentage] points below the national average, but your paper doesn't report that. Roads are being built and improved, but your paper does not report it. It seems that your paper is only interested in reporting negatively about the governor, but will spin every negative story regarding Mayor [Martin] O'Malley or [Montgomery] County Executive [Douglas M.] Duncan.

Nitkin: We cover the state unemployment figures regularly. We cover transportation plans in the counties in our circulation area. We cover the state budget surplus, and tax cut proposals. Part of our job is to shine a spotlight on the operations of government at the local, city and state level. That includes critical coverage of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his record on the environment, slots and other areas, and critical coverage of Mayor O'Malley and his record on supporting low-cost land sales in downtown development areas, the city's continued high homicide rate and the foibles of several of his chiefs of police.

Donald, Rockville: If Michael Steele wins the Senate seat in 2006, do you you think he would be a viable candidate to be the Republican nominee for vice president in 2008? Also, how many Democratic votes do you think he would be able to take away in '08?

Nitkin: Donald, you are really looking ahead, aren't you? To be honest, I hadn't thought of Michael Steele on a national ticket until you mentioned it, but I can see the appeal of a conservative African-American from a state that is within the orbit of the Washington media market. Still, four years as lieutenant governor and two years as U.S. senator hardly seems to be enough seasoning for someone to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, doesn't it?

The latest polling for The Sun showed that in next year's Senate race, Steele would get 16 percent of the Democratic vote against Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, and 22 percent against former NAACP head and congressman Kweisi Mfume. It would be absolutely impossible to predict how many Democratic votes Steele could get as a vice-presidential candidate in '08 -- especially without knowing on what ticket we are talking about in this fantastical hypothesis.

Jason, Baltimore: Do you see Barbara Mikulski retiring from the Senate in 2010? If she does, who do you think will be the most likely candidates to run?

Nitkin: There is frequently talk about Mikulski, 69, retiring, and she was recently hospitalized with a heart irregularity. But she shows few signs of slowing down or giving up her job. She is an aggressive campaigner and a tireless constituent service provider. If she does decide not to run, the real question will be who won't get in the race. I'd say contenders would include Gov. Ehrlich (even if he wins re-election); O'Malley; almost the entire Democratic congressional delegation (Chris Van Hollen, Dutch Ruppersberger, Albert Wynn, Elijah Cummings, Steny Hoyer); and [Prince George's County Del.] Anthony Brown. The list could go on and on.

Tim, Bowie: Where do you see [Del.] Anthony Brown in 10 years? Will he be a congressman? Senator? Or even governor?

Nitkin: Right now, the prospects for Anthony Brown -- picked by O'Malley as a gubernatorial running mate -- appear limitless. But a lot will depend on how next year's campaign goes. If O'Malley loses, Brown will be out of politics and will have moved back to square one.

Alma T. Bell, Baltimore: How is the lieutenant governor going to support [President] George Bush's policies on the war, FEMA's actions in New Orleans, the lack of funding for No Child Left Behind, etc., while campaigning in a heavily Democratic state?

Nitkin: That's a question a lot of Democrats -- and journalists -- are asking as Steele embarks on a Senate campaign. We've asked repeatedly, but right now Steele isn't talking much. His campaign says he is developing his policies. Polling shows that President Bush is very unpopular in Maryland, so Steele can't tie himself to the president's policies and expect to be successful.

Michael Seipp, Baltimore: Has the announcement of state surpluses put to bed the annual battle over slots for 2006, or will the governor try once more to introduce gambling into our city?

Nitkin: The battle for slots will continue. Too much money is at stake for racetrack owners, and Ehrlich is too much of a competitor to give up completely.

Christian Calengo, Germantown: Who do you think would win the governor's race in 2006?

Nitkin: It is unusual for incumbent governors to lose, but Maryland remains a 2-1 Democratic state even after Ehrlich's 2002 victory. The most recent polling for The Sun, conducted last month, had O'Malley ahead of Duncan in the Democratic primary, 42 percent to 23 percent, with 34 percent undecided. In a general election match, O'Malley was ahead of Ehrlich, 48 percent to 33 percent, with 18 percent undecided. Duncan was ahead of Ehrlich, 42 percent to 37 percent, with 20 percent undecided. Ehrlich won't have a primary, however, and could have $20 million or more to spend to get his message out. The race will be very, very close.

Dan Donald: A recent Associated Press story [on the special committee investigating the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices] mentioned, "The names of the witnesses were not made public; they were referred to during a brief public voting session as witness A and witness B." In the interest of open government, why are the lawmakers allowed to keep secret the so-called witnesses? Are A and B being protected for a reason? Who are A and B? What are the Democrats trying to hide. Looks like the committee is keeping the press in the dark, along with the voters.

Nitkin: The AP story did not name the witnesses, but Sun reporters Jennifer Skalka and Andrew A. Green determined their identities, and we published them that day. The personnel committee set its own rules about not disclosing the identity of subpoenaed witnesses, on grounds that they did not want the witnesses to be subjected to harassment. But the identities will be known as soon as the witnesses enter the hearing room. Their testimony will be public. Any darkness will only be temporary.

Tim, Millington: Why are there so many at-will employees in Maryland state government? Did Ehrlich increase their numbers substantially in order to fire more people?

Nitkin: The number of at-will employees was increased substantially, but not by Ehrlich. It was a recommendation of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who wanted agency heads to have more flexibility in managing their departments. Republicans argue that Democrats are grumbling now only because the majority party never imagined that a GOP executive would be running state government.

Tom Kimmitt, Myrtle Beach, S.C.: What has been the experience of the port of Baltimore since the exit of Jim White? Has the political stuff stopped? Has there been any regression in port activities?

Meredith Cohn, a Sun business reporter who covers port issues: Workers at the port report that things have calmed down, and the new port director, Brooks Royster, is settling in and getting to know both employees and customers. There hasn't been much change in personnel yet. Royster has hired a security chief to handle new national and international regulations. White left the port with several long-term contracts in place, and business there seems to have continued on without missing much of a step.