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Out of the Woods; Tis the Season

Aired December 19, 2007 - 23:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, ANCHOR: Still cold from their brush with, well, a very dangerous three days. We'll take you inside the home. We're getting ready for the interview with them.
Also ahead tonight, the campaign ads you probably won't be seeing unless you live in Iowa and New Hampshire. Holiday messages from the candidates. What are they really trying to say with them? We'll look at the messages beyond just Merry Christmas.

Your government in action using nearly $500,000 billion of your money that was supposed to go for hurricane relief after the 2005 storms, only a fraction of it right now has gone to the people in need. We're following the money and keeping the people responsible honest.

We begin with the breaking news. A Christmas to remember for that family that survived in the wild. Just moments ago three of the kids choppered out of danger. This afternoon that happened; just moments ago they arrived home.

They and their father set out for the woods on Sunday to cut down a tree for Christmas. Tonight they have got quite a Christmas story to tell. We expect to hear from them shortly.

First, CNN's Dan Simon is live with the latest developments on the rescue and how they survived. Dan, how did they do it?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Pretty incredible, Anderson. I was standing here on this front lawn of the family's home, and about five or ten minutes ago I see a red minivan pull up, and I said who's in there? And they said that's them.

All of a sudden the three kids emerged from the minivan, they went inside. They're still in their hospital gowns. They're doing remarkably well. This all unfolded just a short time ago when they got released from the hospital.

The father, of course, was with them. He addressed the cameras and explained what it was like when he saw that helicopter in the sky. Take a look. (BEGIN VIDEOCLIP)

FREDERICK DOMINGUEZ, RESCUED FATHER: My daughter heard a helicopter, "Dad, helicopter!" I jumped up barefooted and ran across the rocks, found the snow, and it was deep by that time and then started waving my hands. When they turned around, man, it was just like I was just praising God and saying, "Thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord," because I knew we had made it at that time. My youngest boy was, like, "Dad, are we going to make it? Are you sure we're going to make it?" I said, son, "I would tell you what I got you for Christmas if I thought we weren't going to make it."


COOPER: It's just so amazing. They left on Sunday. Do we know the chronology of what happened of how they survived?

SIMON: Well, what happened is, of course, they were going to look for a Christmas tree in the woods, if you will. Somehow they got lost. They strayed about two miles away from their car. They wound up in an area where they saw a bridge. And underneath the bridge they saw a culvert.

So the father put all three children in the culvert, and they just waited till they could see somebody. Of course, the weather has been awful the last couple of days. And the helicopters really couldn't get in there.

Then there was a break in the weather today. The helicopter was searching the area. This helicopter was about to leave because more bad weather was coming in.

And then all of a sudden the father emerged. He waved to the pilot. The pilot saw them and, of course, you had the happy rescue, Anderson.

COOPER: It is just incredible. I am told they're ready inside to talk. Obviously, we give people privacy at a time like this; they seem willing to speak and want to get their story out. So we're going to go inside their home.

Lisa Sams is the mother of the three children who were missing for days. Lisa, can you hear me? It's Anderson Cooper.

LISA SAMS: Yes, I can.

COOPER: You must be pretty much the happiest mom in America right now.

SAMS: Yes, I am.

COOPER: When you first heard that they were okay, I mean, what went through your mind?

SAMS: Just I can't even explain what went through my mind. I was just ecstatic. I was relieved, and I just had so much joy.

COOPER: Will you do me a favor and introduce your kids to us?

SAMS: This is Lexi, that's Joshy, and that's Christopher. COOPER: Now, Christopher, tell me a little bit about what happened. You left Sunday, hoping to get a Christmas tree. Is that something you guys did every year?

CHRISTOPHER, RESCUED SON: Yeah. We usually do that, and this year we just went to go get our Christmas tree. We got lost. It was snowing. It was nuts.

COOPER: When did you realize you were lost?

CHRISTOPHER: When we couldn't find our way back to the truck.

COOPER: You ask a dumb question, you get a good answer. Lexi, what -- so you realized you're lost. Like what time is that? Was it still light out on Sunday?

LEXI, RESCUED DAUGHTER: Yeah. It was still light out. It didn't -- it got dark really quick, but when we found out that we were lost, it was, like, a lot earlier than what we thought it would have been.

COOPER: And Joshua, at that point did you already have the tree?

SAMS: Did you have the tree when you got lost?

JOSHUA, RESCUED SON: Yeah, we had the tree. But then we had to abandon it.

COOPER: That was probably a wise thing to do. So what did you do, Christopher, when you realize you're lost, I mean, what's the first thing you did?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, we went to just look for the truck, and we ended up having to split, split up. Me and Lexi went one way on the road, and Josh and my dad went one way.

And we were going to meet up to each other and get each other home, but we ended up not finding the truck. We both turned around, and we all met up. And by that time it started to snow, getting dark, and we just needed somewhere to stay.

COOPER: So what happened then, Lexi?

LEXI: We went, and we started -- well, I started freaking out. And so my dad --

COOPER: Understandably.

LEXI: -- and -- my dad and Chris went and found a shelter where we could all stay at because we were freaking out. And so then my dad went in and started cutting down, like, branches and stuff to cover our shelter. And we were laying there, and it was really uncomfortable, but we got out.

COOPER: Joshua, what was the shelter?

CHRISTOPHER: What was the shelter?

JOSHUA: Oh, it was, like, I don't know. It was all, like, I don't know. It was all, like, dirty.

LEXI: It was under a tree.

JOSHUA: Yeah, it was under a tree. It was all mud and we had to clear out the snow.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, we were under a tree.

COOPER: It was under a tree?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, we were under a tree, and my dad went to go get some more branches so that we can put it over the tree so that -- because by then, the snow was going and going. It was getting thicker and thicker.

And so he just went out, and I was with Josh and Lexi and trying to keep them warm. He was out cutting branches to cover up the trees. We just all huddled up together and tried to stay as warm and out of the snow as we possibly could.

COOPER: Yeah, Christopher, how were you dressed? I mean, were you prepared for -- were you wearing a lot of warm clothing?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, no, not at all. We weren't prepared for the snow at all. We just thought we were going to just go up to the mountains, get our tree and go back home. It just didn't turn out that way.

COOPER: We're showing while you're talking, we're showing some pictures of some of the rescue -- of some of the searchers looking for you guys. And you get a sense of how bad the conditions were.

I mean, visibility was not very good. So you build this shelter, the snow was pouring down. What was that first night like, Lexi?

LEXI: It was really, really scary. Like I remember going under the tree and just -- we were all trying to, like, be next to each other. The shelter wasn't very big, so Chris and my dad weren't, like, really in the shelter. It was really just me and Josh in the shelter. It was just really, really scary. The most scariest thing that could happen.

COOPER: And did you have a fire or anything?

LEXI: What?

CHRISTOPHER: No. No fire at all. We just held together and tried to stay warm with each other.

LEXI: Our body heat.

CHRISTOPHER: Tried to use body heat and did the best that we could. COOPER: And did you sleep at all that night, or was it too cold?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, Josh was passed out like a rock. But yeah, I didn't get much sleep, and my dad, I know, didn't get much sleep.

COOPER: We have to take a quick commercial break. You're going to stick with us. We'll just be a minute or two. We'll be right back. We want to talk more, find out what happened the next two days. Remarkable story. We'll be right back.


That was the scene just moments ago when Lexi and Joshua [2310]

COOPER: That was the scene just moments ago when Lexi and Joshua and Christopher brought back home for the first time after spending three days, three very long nights, in the woods. That's their mom, Lisa Sams, hugging them, welcoming them home, still wrapped in the blankets from the hospital. I want to go now to our interview live with the family, Sams family, mom, Lisa, there and kids, Lexi, Christopher and Joshua.

So you were telling us about that first night. Joshua luckily was able to sleep like a rock. Christopher, I take it you weren't able to?

CHRISTOPHER: No, not at all. I was practically halfway out of the tree of the shelter that my dad had made, just trying to keep Josh warm since I was next to him. We just did the best that we could.

COOPER: Now, I had read that one of you had gone on a camping trip, had some training in the wilderness. Was that you, Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, we all go camping every year during the summer. But camping how we camp isn't anything like how we did the past couple days.

COOPER: Yeah, I can imagine. So you wake up the first morning -- and Lexi, were you able to sleep at all?

LEXI: I tried. I kept waking up at the middle of the night, but, like, you know, you do the best you can. It was really hard, though.

COOPER: And at what -- when your father, when he was asked how everyone got through, he said "Jesus Christ." were you guys praying during the night?

LEXI: Yeah, as much as we can.

COOPER: What happened the next day? Dawn comes, and what do you do?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, we wake up, and the first thing we do is just keep on going, keep on following the road. Hopefully we'll see our truck or hopefully we'll see somebody, something out there to get us home. And it just wasn't looking like that.

And we ended up seeing a log, these huge logs, and I was -- I was beat. I couldn't really go any further. So me and Alexis, we both took, like, a nap underneath the log. And my dad and Josh kept going a little further. They turned around and just -- we just decided to go back. It was just -- we were going uphill. It was just not a smart way to keep on going.

So we go back, and we ended up finding a tunnel where we can hide out in and just stay away from the snow because it was just snowing hard. The snow was getting thicker and thicker by the minute. We just needed to get out of there.

COOPER: Yeah, Lexi, was it snowing all day long?

LEXI: Yeah. It was. The first night, we didn't think it was going to snow, and then it started snowing really bad. And then the second night, that's when it really started, like, snowing. It snowed a lot. Like we tried our best to stay out of the snow, and thank God we did.

COOPER: And when you're walking, I mean, were your feet going deep into the snow? How were you able to actually walk? It must have been exhausting.

LEXI: It was -- well, my feet were numb. They were so numb. I couldn't really feel them. But I tried to keep walking. And then when we were under the tunnel, my dad, like, cut up his shirt and Chris cut up his shirt, and we made new socks so our feet could stay warm.

COOPER: So you actually had made socks from your cut-up shirt? That's amazing.


LEXI: Yeah.

COOPER: Did that actually work?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, it worked for a while through the night. But after a while, they just got wet since we were by the water. And the snow came in. It was just hard.

So we actually had to take off our shoes and just leave our socks on that we made. And let our shoes dry out for a little bit. It helped. Our feet were pretty cold, but it worked out.

COOPER: So do you have any food on you during all this?

CHRISTOPHER: No. We had nothing.


CHRISTOPHER: We didn't think we were going to be staying four days. We thought we were just going to go there, come back home and get something to eat. It didn't happen that way.

COOPER: So the second night, you're in -- you said it was like a tunnel or it was like a tunnel, you said?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Yeah. It was, like, over where the road, like a bridge type of tunnel, and there was a little creek that went through. So we just slept on the rocks right next to the water and huddled together, tried to keep warm and did the best we could.

COOPER: And obviously you were able to stay hydrated. Were you eating the snow or drinking from the creek?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, we did a little bit of both. It was -- it was -- there wasn't really much. It was really cold, and it wasn't fun drinking out of that creek and getting the snow and stuff, but we managed.

COOPER: So the second night passes in the tunnel. Then the third day, did you just decide to stay there?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Well, we were going to try to head back up to the other way and try to find the truck somehow, some way, but we woke up, and the snow was a couple feet deep, and there was just no way we were going to be able to walk in that snow.

Especially none of us had boots. We weren't prepared for the snow, so we just figured we'll wait it out, just wait it out and hopefully someone somewhere will come. And my dad, he went up to the top, and he spelled out with sticks "Help" and threw a couple of the socks that we used that were all wet, we just threw them up there and made it so that they would see and come get us.

COOPER: So Christopher, I have on the phone Matt Pearce who's with the Butte County search and rescue. He's the incident commander; he was in charge of the search.

I'm hoping you'll be able to hear what he's telling us because I want to sort of go day by day. Commander, can you hear me?


COOPER: Hey, thanks for joining us. At what point were you guys mobilized, and how did you go about searching for this family?

PEARCE: Initially we were mobilized starting Monday night when their mom had reported to Paradise Police Department that they had been missing. Paradise Police contacted the Butte County Sheriff's Department, and we were requested to respond up there to look for the family.

We got into the area, located their vehicle. And based on the information we had been given by the mother, we started our search from the vehicle where we had found it.

COOPER: Lisa, when was it that you decided to call these guys? They left Sunday. They don't show up Monday. That's when you realized something terrible had happened, right?

SAMS: Yes. Right after I got off work, I went to -- I went home, and my fiance, Brian, had told me that Freddie did not make it to work. And so then I knew that something was wrong. And then I drove by Freddie's house and was expecting Josh to be home there because he didn't show up to school.

And then we had found out that no one made it home that day. So that's when I went to the sheriff's department. That was about -- a little after 6:00.

COOPER: So commander, Lisa does the right thing, calls the authorities. What was the search like? We've seen those conditions. We've seen Christopher describing what the snow was like. That must have been a very difficult search.

PEARCE: It was very difficult. The weather being what it was, it's snowing, the terrain was just -- it was horrible. The Manzanillo with snow on top of it and the steepness of the area just made travel very difficult for everyone.

COOPER: And I don't know if you've been able to hear, Christopher and Lexi and Josh talk about what they went through. But once they got separated from the car, obviously you want to try to stick with the car. But once they had gotten separated, it sounds like they did all the right things in terms of trying to find a place out of the snow that they could build a little shelter and stick with that.

PEARCE: Definitely. I mean, definitely. Being able to talk to them now proves that they did everything right. That's the end goal of anything we ever do is to make sure everybody comes home at the end.

COOPER: Also on the phone is Steve Ward, he's a California Highway patrol helicopter pilot who actually found this family. Thanks for joining us. How did you see them?

STEVE WARD, CALIFORNIA HELICOPTER PILOT: We were searching these canyons because the clouds were covering the tops of the mountains, so we were working the canyons. We had been up there about a half hour.

As we were working our way down because we were being forced down because of weather, I looked down and I saw the father waving his arms at me. And so we made a couple of orbits, and as we looked down, we could see the word "Help" in snow that he made with a couple of twigs. And so we knew that was our party we were looking for.

COOPER: And we're seeing some of the photos that you took. Christopher, when you heard -- did you hear the helicopter?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. We all heard the helicopter. We were all yelling -- or we were all sitting down at the time. We all had each other's feet inside of each others' jackets trying to keep our feet warm because they were all frozen. And just trying to keep our feet warm when we heard the helicopter and told my dad, "The helicopter, the helicopter."

Josh saw the helicopter. My dad, he just ran out there and started waving his arms screaming "Help! Help!" And that's when they started circling and going down and going down. We were all just happy, happy to be rescued.

COOPER: I'm sure happy is an understatement. We've got to take a quick break. We're going to be right back with more on this remarkable story about the rescue and what happened then.

We'll be right back.


COOPER: And we are back with this remarkable tale of survival. Three days out in the wilderness. Christopher, 18, Alexis, 15, Joshua 12, wrapped up in blanket, warm finally after three very long days of not being warm. Lisa Sams is there their mom, obviously very happy.

We also have on the phone, Matt Pearce, with the Butte County Search and Rescue. He's the incident commander who was in charge of the search for this family. Also on the phone is Steve Ward, California Highway Patrol helicopter pilot who found them. And we're also going to be talk to Dave White, the paramedic who first treated them on the scene.

Lexi, I want to start with you, though. Was there ever a time that you kind of taught, you know, this is it? We're not getting out of here?

LEXI: Yeah, there was a couple of times. I just remember walking and walking and being, like, we're not going to make it. They can't even see us through all this fog. There was a couple of times that I was really, really scared.

But then my dad just -- he just -- he pulled us through, and he said that if he didn't think we were going to make it, he would have told us our Christmas presents. So it's okay.

CHRISTOPHER: And we still don't know what we got for Christmas.

LEXI: We don't know what we have yet.

COOPER: You still don't know what you have for Christmas?



COOPER: Whatever you get, it's going to be, I bet the best presents you guys ever, ever got. Chris, Lexi said she freaked out. Did you ever freak out at any time?

CHRISTOPHER: I tried not to especially in front of them. I didn't want them to really lose hope. Whenever they would freak out, I would just be like, "It's all right. We're going to make it through this. This is nothing. We have already been here a couple of days, what's a couple more days?"

COOPER: How hungry were you?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, after -- after the --

LEXI: So hungry.

CHRISTOPHER: After a couple days, it was all right, but it was rough, definitely rough. We like to eat.

COOPER: Did you talk about food or did you try not to talk about it?


LEXI: We talked about it.

CHRISTOPHER: We were talking about going out to eat.

LEXI: The hometown buffet. The diner.

CHRISTOPHER: All you can eat.

COOPER: What was the food that you guys missed the most?

CHRISTOPHER: Oh, anything. Anything we could eat, we just wanted it.

JOSHUA: I wanted soup and brownies.

CHRISTOPHER: We just kept dreaming about food.

COOPER: On the phone again, Steve Ward with the California Highway Patrol, the pilot who found them. Steve, could you immediately land once you saw their dad?

WARD: We saw an opening right over the top of the culvert, not too far away from the family there. So Dave and I just did a quick recon and settled the helicopter right down in between the trees into the culvert, and it worked find for us. About 2 1/2 feet of snow and it worked out fine.

COOPER: If you could put Paramedic Dave White on the phone. I know you guys are sharing the phone. I just want to ask him. Dave, what were the conditions like? What were the kids like, how were they in terms of their conditions?

DAVE WHITE, PARAMEDIC: Well, actually they were remarkably in good condition. I was really surprised for the ordeal that they had gone through, that they were actually able to walk up the snow bank towards the helicopter.

COOPER: And things like frostbite, hypothermia, did they have it?

WHITE: Yes, they had -- I would imagine that they probably all had mild hypothermia and I believe two of the younger victims had minor frostbite to the toes.

COOPER: Let me ask you now, Christopher, how are you feeling now? You guys are all wrapped up in blankets sitting there. I know you're toasty warm. How do you feel?

CHRISTOPHER: I'm just ready to go to bed. Eat some more pizza and pass out.

COOPER: I'm not going to keep you much longer because I don't want to interfere between you and a bed. Alexis, how do you feel? Are you still cold?

LEXI: My feet are definitely still tingling from how numb they were and stuff. But I'm hanging in there.

COOPER: Josh, how do you feel?

JOSHUA: I feel good, just happy to be home. I didn't think we were going to make it.

COOPER: Is there a lesson, Christopher, in all of this? Or what's the thing you're going to remember most about all of this?

CHRISTOPHER: The whole thing. It's something you're not going to forget for sure. I don't know. Lexi in there, in the tunnel singing her heart out. That's what I remember.

COOPER: What were you singing, Lexi, in the tunnel?

LEXI: Any song that came to my head. Just someone would say sing this song and I would be like, okay. And I would just start singing it.

JOSHUA: We'd all help her, too.

COOPER: Oh, yeah? You were all joining in? Did that help pass the time?

LEXI: Yeah, definitely.

COOPER: It's so great to see you all. A lot of people have been following this story. Christopher, it's great to see you guys healthy, Alexis and Josh as well. And Lisa, I'm so happy that your family is back and with you safe and sound

And I'm sure you've got a lot of pizza there and a lot food to give them and maybe some soup and some brownies too, you'll get as well. Guys I do appreciate it. It's great to see you all.

A lot of times these stories don't end well. It's a real pleasure to talk to you safe and sound. You have a great night and get some sleep.


LEXI: Thank you. JOSHUA: Thank you.

COOPER: Also I want to thank obviously Steve Ward and paramedic Dave White and also Matt Pearce with the Butte County Search and Rescue. He's the incident commander who was in charge of this entire search.

A lot more to cover. Just ahead tonight, a new shift in the race to the White House, with two weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses. We're running the latest numbers after the break and exploring the issues behind them.


COOPER: Another big swing in the polls going to Iowa or New Hampshire. The undecided are starting to make up their minds. We're going to be looking at the issues driving those numbers.

But first, in the latest CNN/WMUR New Hampshire poll just out today, Hillary Clinton has moved back into a commanding lead among likely voters with 38 percent to Barack Obama's 26 percent John Edwards' 14. That's in New Hampshire.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney, former governor of neighboring Massachusetts is cruising along with a 12-point lead, McCain is in second, with Rudy Giuliani another six points back at 16 percent.

Joining me to talk about the issues and raw politics behind the polls, CNN's John King and Jeffrey Toobin along with Jennifer Donahue of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College.

John, let's start with these latest numbers in New Hampshire; Hillary Clinton back at a commanding lead with a 12-point advantage over Barack Obama. She went up, Obama went down. That's not the case, obviously, in Iowa where Obama still has a slight lead. What is different in New Hampshire?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF CORRESPONDENT: First, I'd be careful about saying a commanding lead; it's still a long way to go to New Hampshire and they tend to go back and forth. But at the moment a commanding lead, Anderson.

It's striking what's different between Iowa and New Hampshire. Here in Iowa on both the Democrat and the Republican side, the race seems to be about who you are, leadership qualities, personal characteristics and personal character. In New Hampshire it's about what would you do. We started the year talking about Iraq, we're ending the year talking about the economy, health care and domestic issues.

And on those issues, Senator Clinton has the clear lead over her opponents especially on healthcare and the economy. And same with Governor Romney who also -- he has a very clear lead over his rivals on the economy, illegal immigration and domestic issues as well. So New Hampshire is much more about the issues, and that is why Senator Clinton and Governor Romney are on top.

COOPER: Jennifer, do you agree that on the Republican side that holds true as well that that's what's working for Mitt Romney in New Hampshire?

JENNIFER DONAHUE, N.H. INSTITUTE OF POLITICS, ST. ANSELM COLLEGE: I would say it is to some extent. Essentially Romney started campaigning here as Governor before 2006. He's a known entity in the state and now we're finding out that 230,000 people who have moved up from Massachusetts, this is a state of 1.2 million people, are now eligible voters since the year 2000.

So there's a lot of influx of centrists, and I think that's helping both Romney and Hillary Clinton maintain a base in the state that might otherwise be a little bit more polarized to the right or to the left. But the other thing to keep in mind is, these numbers are very fluid.

I mean on the Democratic side, you've got 65 percent undecided voters, the Republican side, 74 percent undecided voters. I just got back from an Obama event, where he asked for a show of hands, at an Obama event, who's undecided about a quarter of the room raised their hands. This is up for grabs on both sides. So these numbers really have to be looked at carefully.

COOPER: Yeah. Or disregarded with two weeks left to go.

DONAHUE: In some ways.

COOPER: Yeah. Jeff, today Romney went after Huckabee on the trail in Iowa where Huckabee obviously continues to build a solid lead. I want to listen to some of what he said and then Huckabee's response.


MITT ROMNEY, (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think that Governor Huckabee made a significant error in insulting the president. I noticed Governor Huckabee was not happy with the fact that I have been laying out his positions on a couple of areas. Governor Huckabee raised taxes more than Bill Clinton has, Governor Huckabee's record is more liberal than our nation needs right now.

MIKE HUCKABEE, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's been attacking me just ruthlessly in the mail and on television and distorting the record. I think we need to get the record straightened up.


COOPER: Not really any surprise, this is the kind of stuff that happens especially as the clock is ticking. Romney has been falling further behind Huckabee in Iowa though despite outspending him 10-1.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: The rise of Mike Huckabee has been such an extraordinary phenomenon, done with no money essentially and simply by his appearances in the news media. I mean not even many television commercials. And Romney has staked virtually his entire campaign on an Iowa and New Hampshire strategy. He still seems to be doing pretty well in New Hampshire, but Iowa has been falling away from him, and he's got to take on Huckabee.

It doesn't matter about any of the other candidates because they're not making any progress. Huckabee is standing in between him in the sweep of the two first states.

COOPER: We're going to have more "Raw Politics" and we're going to look at the Christmas ads that the candidates have put out. That's right they're all putting out Christmas ads now. A short break first.


COOPER: Before the break we looked at some of the hard numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire nationally along with the issues driving them. The races is so tight, Republican, Democrat; virtually anything can make a difference going into Iowa and New Hampshire.

Maybe that's why so much attention has been paid to a bunch of campaign ads that most people outside the battleground states don't even get to see; Christmas messages that could be saying a lot more. The raw politics of that now from CNN's Joe Johns.


JOE JOHNS: Top of my Christmas wish list, more political ads and Santa has been very generous. Here's one from Hillary Clinton and she knows just what all you good girls and boys want.

HILLAR CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Where did I put universal pre-k? Okay. Ah, there it is.

JOHNS: But seriously, folks. Take John Edwards, please, he's deadly serious.

JOHN EDWARDS, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: One out of every four homeless people on our streets is a veteran. 37 million Americans live in poverty. Who speaks for them? We do. This is the season of miracles.

JOHNS: So he hopes. On the Republican side, look at Rudy in a Santa red sweater. And look, Santa is with him. This ought to be good.

RUDY GIULIANI (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Job growth, fiscal discipline, strict constructionist judges.

JOHNS: But wait, there's more.

GIULIANI: A fruitcake or something.


It will be a really nice fruitcake.

JOHNS: So much levity. Time for the true meaning of Christmas ad. For that we turn to our resident minister.

HUCKABEE: What really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ.

JOHNS: Can't argue with that, although there are some arguing with the floating cross. Or is it a bookshelf? They see it as a subliminal message. A message about Christ on Christmas? Shocking. Too much controversy.

Time for the video equivalent of a warm cup of cocoa loaded with marshmallows with the warm and fuzzy Obamas.

MICHELLE OBAMA, SEN. OBAMA'S WIFE: We would like to take a moment to thank you and your family.

BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message.

Merry Christmas. Happy holidays.

JOHNS: Nice ads. I'll put them next to my lump of coal. Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: We're back now with CNN's John King, Jeffrey Toobin along with Jennifer Donahue of New Hampshire Institute of Politics. John, you usually don't see these type of ads, I guess in the past because the Iowa caucuses took place in late January not right after Christmas. How effective are they?

KING: That Joe Johns is a Grinch.

COOPER: I know. He is a little Scrooge-like this year.

KING: Look, Anderson, this is a unique year, you're right, people are going to have Christmas, then they're going to have a few days and then you have the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries while people are still trying to enjoy the holidays.

The candidates don't want to do slash-and-burn attack ads when people are celebrating the holidays gathering around with their families. But they also don't want to disappear because the elections are so close behind those holidays.

And you mentioned the poll volatility before the break. The polls are so volatile, the candidates worry if they disappear for a few days from TV, they'll disappear in the polls. They're trying to be out there without being overly aggressive.

TOOBIN: Oh please those ads are so revolting I can't even stand it. Please, do you think any of those candidates care whether you have a Merry Christmas or not? No, they don't care.

They want your vote. That's why those ads are on the air. I just think this is a new low. They're a bunch of phony baloney. DONAHUE: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Wait. It's not a low. It might not matter; it might not move an undecided voter. But it's not a low. A low is Bob Kerry talking about Obama. A low is what happened last week with the issue of the drug use.

COOPER: Jennifer, didn't you learn anything?

DONAHUE: This is a Christmas ad.

COOPER: Do you think we learn anything about these candidates though?

DONAHUE: I think we do. I really think we do. You see Obama -- no, I'm totally serious. Hillary Clinton and Giuliani are seen without families, without spouses and that's not going over that well. And you can look right back at the poll and say is that poll going to hold true? But I'm sorry, people like to see Mitt Romney and his family, Barack Obama and his family and that's something that voters like to see.

TOOBIN: Shame on the voters then. What about an ad that says I won't raise your taxes, or Huckabee's a bum, or Huckabee's great. I mean, this is what politics is, it's not total phoniness about Christmas. I mean, you know, it's bad enough that Christmas has been commercialized now it's being politicized as well.

DONAHUE: I mean, what do you expect? I mean, what would you possibly expect?

TOOBIN: What would you expect? Well, maybe that people want to be president of the United States.

DONAHUE: You're surprised that politicians are acting like politicians. I was wondering the other day when McCain got the endorsement of "The Union Leader", the "Boston Globe" and Lieberman, and Giuliani announced he was pulling out of New Hampshire and then he showed up. If he thought he was going to get Santa's endorsement, it's ridiculous.

COOPER: John, is this as low as it's going to get if Jeffrey Toobin is right?

KING: It's certainly not low. There are negative mailings, there are slash-and-burn phone calls going to people. There's a lot of negative stuff that people would consider low going on.

These ads, some of them are silly, some of them are ridiculous. Maybe they won't sway some voters, but I think Jennifer is right, picking a president is about immigration and taxes and health care and the economy, but it's also about do you like that person?

So if you look at these ads and you see the Obama children, you might say, "Oh, I didn't realize -- that's a nice look at his family." Or you might see them and say, "I don't like this, it's silly." But likability matters in politics as much as issues and these ads will either work or backfire, but it does matter. COOPER: John King --

TOOBIN: Can I just add one thing, Anderson?

COOPER: Please, you haven't said enough on this topic.

TOOBIN: I would like to say, on behalf of my family, Amy, Ellen and Adam, Merry Christmas to you.

DONAHUE: You're such a sellout. You're promoting your family. You're rising to a new low.

COOPER: Next time you got to bring the family with you to make it more effective.

TOOBIN: Have a burning fireplace behind me.

DONAHUE: That's the lowest of low.

COOPER: Jeffrey "Scrooge" Toobin, thank you Jennifer Donahue and John King, Thank you very much.

Up next "Keeping Them Honest" on your money laid out to help hurricane survivors but most of the people who applied still have not gotten a penny more than two years later in the wake of Hurricane Rita in Texas. Back in a minute.


COOPER: Now to a story that is frankly shameful. Next week, more than 4,000 families in Texas will spend their third Christmas in a FEMA trailer with no room for a tree and little hope of moving out anytime soon.

They lost their homes in Hurricane Rita more than two years ago. The storm did serious damage of course when it slammed through 22 counties. It's often forgotten because it came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And the federal government sent hundreds of millions of dollars in relief to Texas.

But 27 months later barely any of that so-called emergency funding has actually been spent. We wanted to find out why. CNN's Randi Kaye is "Keeping Them Honest."


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The numbers are staggering. After Hurricane Rita, nearly $500 million federal targeted for rebuilding were sent to Texas. But only a fraction, $1.1 million, has actually been spent on rebuilding homes. That's less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

HELENA SAUNDERS: This is my little house.

KAYE: This 69-year-old grandmother from Sabine pass has been living in this FEMA trailer since the storm. So your house used to be right out there?

SAUNDERS: Yes, yes, yes. Used to be right out there in the front.

KAYE: Helena Saunders can't afford to rebuild on her own. In all this time she hasn't gotten a single dollar from the state.

Do you think the state has done a decent job of getting money?

SAUNDERS: So far right now, no. I think within two years, something should have been done by now, for us and this little community.

KAYE: It's not all the state. Most federal money didn't reach Texas till this year. But the state did get $43 million a year and a half ago, and it's only spent $1 million, a big chunk of that on administration.

Meanwhile, the state audit shows as of September, only 13 of more than 4,000 applicants had received homes. "Keeping Them Honest," we asked the state, what gives?

These are the neediest people. How do you justify a more than two-year wait to get emergency funding, as they call it?

MICHAEL GERBER, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND COMMUNITY AFFAIRS: There's just intensive rules that you have to work through, and it's very intensive case work.

KAYE: Michael Gerber says the pace has quickened. 120 homes now built or bid out, not enough for people here.

Walk down any street here in Sabine pass, and you're going to find people living in FEMA trailers. This family right here is so big they needed two trailers. Right here you have another family in a trailer, across the street, another trailer. And I can see even more trailers down there in the distance. All of these people just waiting, wondering, will their money ever come?

Gerber points to multiple federal requirements, environmental testing, historical preservation clearances, and more. But, he concedes, the state also moves slowly to avoid fraud.

And there are other problems. Gerber's agency asks local councils to determine eligibility, but the audit says councils didn't do the job right, and the state didn't catch that, much less fix it. Some eligible families were told they were not eligible.

Has your agency failed or been a success in this process?

GERBER: I think it's been mixed results.

KAYE: The audit also says there weren't enough workers to handle the caseload. These people had no where to live, and part-time employees were being used to handle their caseloads. How can that be okay? How can that be allowed?

GERBER: I think that's really unfair.

KAYE: If you had lost your home, would you not want full-time employees on the case to get this done?

GERBER: Randi, there are lots of full-time employees that are involved in this.

KAYE: But from what I understand, they were doing this work in addition to doing their full-time job.

GERBER: There are some employees who do a myriad of things.

KAYE: Helena's application shows she applied for aid December 6th, 2006. Her son tells me they've heard nothing back.

ADAM SAUNDERS, HELENA'S SON: It's been over a year since the applications have been done, and we've just been sitting and waiting.

KAYE: From the back of Adam Saunders' pickup, we got to see the progress for ourselves.

How do you feel when you drive around and you see that your town is still not put back together?

A. SAUNDERS: Yeah, -- it's really sad, you know? I mean, it's a place that's home and that you love. And to see that we're still suffering and haven't come back yet is really difficult at times.

KAYE: We've been driving around here all day, and the need is apparent. $12 million has been set aside for Sabine pass. The state has the money but hasn't spent a penny of it. Residents here tell us they don't expect to know if they even qualify for that money until spring of next year.

Back at Helena Saunders' trailer, hope is running low.

Are you confident you'll get this money anytime soon?

H. SAUNDERS: I feel like I won't. I feel like I won't get it. And that's a bad way to feel.

KAYE: Makes you wonder why they call it emergency funding in the first place. Randi Kaye, CNN, Sabine Pass, Texas.


COOPER: Emergency funding, two years later. Check out Randi's story and the blog for more details on what money could still come their way. Go to and link to the blog.

Still ahead, a fire breaks out just steps from the west wing of the White House, damaging Vice President Cheney's ceremonial offices and sending hundreds of employees scrambling for safety. We'll tell you about that.

And we're going to show you a Florida resident who's taking Christmas lights and holiday cheer to kind of a bizarre level. Actually looks a little bit dangerous there. Wow! That will freak you out. It's our "Shot of the Day" next on "360."


COOPER: You know, some people go overboard with Christmas lights this time of year. Well, a Florida woman has taken it to a whole new level. No, that's not Lou Dobbs at a rave. It's a woman in Florida who just has the spirit of Christmas all stuck to her.

Take a look. That is 51-year-old Candy Strand. We're not really sure that's her real name. I think not. As you can see, she's dressed in holiday lights. Every night she plugs herself in, so to speak, and dances -- or literally I guess in this case -- and dances in front of her house to Christmas music.

It's apparently the second year she's done this. Do we have the Christmas music? We don't have the music.

KAYE: Doesn't it sound awfully dangerous, plugging yourself in?

COOPER: And apparently the kids get involved in it, too. She's like the pied piper in the neighborhood, they all want to come and dance with Candy Strand.

KAYE: You know, Anderson, Dancing Candy Strand as we like to call her reminds me of some other dancers. Remember these moves? I'm sure you haven't forgotten.

COOPER: Philippine prisoners.

KAYE: Prison inmates in the Philippines, they are performing Michael Jackson's "Thriller." We hear the music there. The dance routine; part of their daily exercise program as you know by now. Apparently the prisoners thought their ordinary exercisers were flat out boring.

But "Thriller," as you can see is a real big hit. Their routine has been downloaded more than 9 million times on the Internet. Imagine, just imagine, use your imagination here, maybe they should be covered in some Christmas lights.

COOPER: I bet at least one of those prisoners is named Candy Strand.

KAYE: I'm sure.

COOPER: At least, you know, colloquially. We'll leave it there.

KAYE: Best to leave it there.

COOPER: Remember, get your "360" fix 24/7 as the kids like to say on our website. You've got to check it out.

Up next, we'll tell you how you can be part of our big New Year's Eve celebration with Kathy Griffin. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Happy New Year! In less than two weeks we're going to be right there, ringing in 2008. We want you to be part of our big show on New Year's Eve. It's always a lot of fun. We've been doing it for about four or five years now.

You can join the party. Go to and send us your photos. Tell us your memories and videos, post a shout out to your friends. Your New Year's resolutions. Make them funny, make them crazy, whatever. We'll post them. We'll put them on live.

Erica Hill and I will be in Times Square along with our special guest, Kathy Griffin. So join us for that.

For our international viewers, CNN Today is next. Here in America, Larry King is coming up. I'll see you tomorrow night. Thanks for watching.