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Kelly Wallace: Building the coalition and Cheney's whereabouts

Kelly Wallace is a CNN White House correspondent.

CNN: Kelly, what's the latest on the strength of the coalition? Are there any key governments that the U.S. is still trying to secure support from?

WALLACE: It appears Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's trip to the Middle East and Central Asia is designed to ensure the coalition is strong and that the U.S. can count on key Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as Oman and Uzbekistan, which neighbors Afghanistan. Those are the four countries Rumsfeld is visiting. There have been some questions about whether Saudi Arabia will allow the U.S. to use an air base as a command center for any military attack on Afghanistan. Egypt has also been somewhat quiet publicly about how much support it is willing to provide to this international campaign. So, while the administration says it is making progress and the coalition is strong, it does appear Rumsfeld's trip is a sign that the administration felt it needed to do some more up close and personal diplomacy to get the support it needs.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have you personally seen Dick Cheney recently? He seems to be missing?

WALLACE: Well, we did see the vice president earlier in the week when the president had breakfast with congressional leaders. The vice president sat next to the president as Mr. Bush answered a range of questions from reporters. Also, Mr. Cheney was on Capitol Hill Tuesday meeting with Senate Democrats and also I believe with House members. So, clearly the vice president is not missing, but he is working very much behind the scenes. You might ask if this is an orchestrated strategy to make sure he doesn't steal the spotlight from the president. I am told that is not the case, that he is just doing the job that he normally does. He attends national security briefings everyday with the president and is involved in all major meetings about the campaign, but he is not out there taking center stage. Also, we know a while back the vice president was working out at Camp David because of security concerns (the U.S. Secret Service thought it best the two men not be in the same place), but now Mr. Cheney is definitely working from his White House office.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How do you think the upbeat messages from the likes of President Bush and Mayor Giuliani are being taken by the administration, and are they planning to do anything in particular to try and reduce the heightened sense of paranoia?

WALLACE: I am not sure what you mean by the first part of your question, but I think you are referring to how the president and Mayor Giuliani are trying to encourage people to get on with their lives and return to some normalcy. You raise a very good point, because just as Mr. Bush talks of getting back to some type of business as usual, he and his administration tell the American public that threats still exist. What the White House is trying to do is find the right balance between informing the public and being "forthright" according to one White House aide, and not trying to be alarmist.

That is why you see the president going out to dinner, traveling to New York and doing things that convey some sense of normalcy. Whether it works really depends on how the American people respond. Today's news of a case of anthrax is another challenge for the White House, because just as it tries to get the information out there quickly to reduce any concern, Americans all over the country are hearing the news and wondering if they are at risk. It will continue to be a delicate balancing act for the White House, which will get harder and harder if there are any further scares.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Has the president consulted with church leaders on actions to be taken in this new war?

WALLACE: That's a very good question. I don't know if the president has consulted with church leaders. I do believe he's met with some religious leaders, most recently, I believe, with Muslim and Sikh community leaders. I don't believe these meetings included any discussions on actions to be taken. I believe the focus was more on making sure that Muslim Americans and Sikhs are not discriminated against or harassed following the September 11 attacks. As you know, the president is a religious man, who, I believe, prays daily and who attends church every Sunday. I don't know how much he is relying on his faith, but one would expect he is using it for strength as he faces some difficult decisions ahead. A good point though that I will try to follow up with White House officials when I can.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you see that non-partisanism is still strong behind the president or are the parties becoming more separated over time?

WALLACE: I think it is probably fair to say there are appear to be some cracks in this bipartisan spirit which has enveloped Washington since September 11. Democrats today accused the Republicans of being obstructionist and not willing to negotiate one part of an airline security bill, whether airport screeners should be federal employees. Also, Republicans seem to be concerned that Democrats will try to add too many new programs to any stimulus package designed to bolster the economy, and Democrats are already saying the president's proposals to help laid-off workers don't go far enough. So, it appears things are getting somewhat back to normal in the nation's capital. Although I should note that both sides remain solidly behind the president in every aspect of this campaign against terrorism -- Democrats and Republicans have high praise for the way Mr. Bush has been handling the challenge, and are backing the military, diplomatic and financial parts to this war.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

WALLACE: The key question we all keep asking is: when will any military campaign begin? We just don't know and clearly the White House is not going to tell us. So, my advice is to continue to stay in touch with what is happening because this is a story that is constantly changing, with every day bringing new diplomatic, military and economic developments. The sense is the coalition building will continue, and that the U.S. is waiting to act until "all the pieces are in place." So, we will stay on top of the story and you do the same!

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

WALLACE: Great to be with you, and thanks for the terrific questions. See you next week.


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