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President Obama Extends Vacation; Who Will Replace Ted Kennedy in U.S. Senate?; Wildfires Scorch Southern California

Aired August 31, 2009 - 16:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama needs more downtime. His R&R was interrupted, so the president extends his break. Could he lose momentum on health care reform?

And who will replace a man some say is irreplaceable? With Ted Kennedy laid to rest, who might take his Senate seat. The Massachusetts governor makes a critical decision.

And California burns from one end to the other. One blaze doubles its size, threatening more homes and forcing more evacuations. One official pleads for prayers to -- quote -- "the good lord upstairs."

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama's vacation now includes a staycation. The president and first family bounded off of Marine One back to the White House yesterday, but they are bound for more rest and relaxation. They have extended their vacation.

Right now, they are staying close to home, President Obama on downtime here in the Washington area, but later this week another getaway. Could risk be part of the R&R when it comes to the president's plans for health care reform?

Let's go straight to CNN senior White House correspondent Ed Henry.

And the president, we see, playing a little golf today.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Suzanne. He's golfing right now here in the Washington area.

And as he continues his vacation, you're right that he's facing more pressure from leaders in both parties to really get more active in this health care debate, retake control of the debate, in fact, over the weekend, Democratic Senator Chris Dodd saying that the president needs, in his words needs, to step up, really reframe the debate.

And then, today, in "The Washington Post," former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole writing that he thinks the president, in his words, can't be cheerleaders in chief anymore, instead that he needs to finally get specific with the health plane, send it to Congress next week.

I pressed Robert Gibbs on that point today. Gibbs sort of brushed aside Bob Dole's advice and even made a joke about the president golfing.


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He's talked with many members of the Finance Committee and members of Congress in the House and the Senate. I -- I think to characterize the role that the president is playing as inactive would be inaccurate.

HENRY: Well, he doesn't seem to be active on health care right now. Is he -- I mean, is he going to go on a campaign...


GIBBS: You mean like right now?

HENRY: Well, he's golfing right now, and I guess so he's not...


GIBBS: Well, I mean, if he hits Marvin with a golf ball, I guess he would become more active on health care.


HENRY: Now, Marvin, of course, is one of the president's staffers, Marvin Nicholson, who is golfing with him right now. We haven't gotten any reports of any errant golf balls out there on the course, Suzanne, so I assume everyone is OK and there's been no health care intervention.

But, in all seriousness, the president obviously needs, once Congress gets back next week and this vacation is over, to regain the momentum -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Ed, isn't -- isn't there a key Republican part of the negotiations over health care reform who is making some news?

HENRY: That's right. This really is a major development, because Republican Senator Mike Enzi is one of just three Republicans who is part of that gang of six senators who has been involved still at the negotiating -- negotiating table trying to work out a bipartisan deal.

Over the weekend, he really ripped into the president on health care, saying, among other things, charging that the president wants to raid Medicare. And, today, Robert Gibbs really ripped into the senator, insisting that this is not true, and also saying he believes now that this Republican has walked from the table.


GIBBS: It appears that at least in Senator Enzi's case, he doesn't believe there's a pathway to get bipartisan support, and the president thinks that's wrong. I think Senator Enzi's clearly turned over his cards on bipartisanship and decided that it's time to walk away from the table.


HENRY: Now, I spoke to Senator Enzi's office. His spokesman insists that is not true. He says the senator still is hoping to work out a bipartisan deal. He is still at the table technically speaking.

But clearly it doesn't appear from this back and forth that the hopes of a bipartisan deal are really increasing. Instead, they seem to be fading, and that's one of many difficulties the president could be facing next week when Congress gets back to work -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. All right. Ed, thanks so much.

Meanwhile, war offers no vacation from devastation and death. In Afghanistan, two American troops are dead after separate bombings today, and two British troops died in an explosion, as chaos rocks Afghanistan.

The top U.S. commander there has a new opinion on what it will take to actually succeed. And there are new details about the results of the recent presidential election.

Let's bring in our CNN Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence.

And the American commander's view, what does he say will define success in Afghanistan? How does he define it?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, he said two things that will be needed are more commitment and resolve, which won't be easy when you hear some of the statistics that you just reported just now.

General Stanley McChrystal also says that there needs to be a unity of effort in that not just more NATO troops, but troops that don't have all the restrictions placed on them by their countries on where and how they can fight. General McChrystal says Afghanistan is -- quote -- "serious," a very serious situation, but still winnable -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Is there any indication that he is going to ask for more troops?

LAWRENCE: Not in this report.

Officials say there's no specific request here for more troops or more money. But Secretary Gates hasn't even seen this assessment yet, much less President Obama. We have learned now that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has seen the report. He's making his assessments on it. General Petraeus is doing the same thing. They will funnel it up the chain of command.

And this report could be the basis, the basis, for possible troop requests down the line in a month or two.

MALVEAUX: Now, Chris, we're also hearing accusations, reports of of -- fraud, election fraud. How is that going to impact the military strategy, if -- if they look at this election and just don't believe that it's legitimate?

LAWRENCE: Well, if you remember, right after the election because the Taliban were not able to disrupt it, U.S. officials were claiming it as a -- as huge success. Well, now a watchdog group is saying that they are investigating more than 2,000 allegations of -- of voter fraud, of voter intimidation, ballot-stuffing and the like.

In the short term, this means that there could be possibly a runoff election. That means that NATO forces would be diverted to providing security from that runoff election from their other security missions. Long term, it means that, if the Afghan people don't look at their government as a legitimate one, they would be more open to let the Taliban run services and have more authority.

MALVEAUX: OK. Chris Lawrence -- thank you so much, Chris.

LAWRENCE: You're welcome.

MALVEAUX: Absolutely no relief today from a giant wildfire said to have a mind of its own, racing through Southern California.

The so-called Station fire has burned at least 134 square miles. That is almost 86,000 acres. It has destroyed almost two dozen homes and threatens thousands more. It is the largest of at least eight fires up and down California.

Our CNN's Reynolds Wolf is joining us from the staging area in Sunland, California.

Reynolds, are they making any headway? What are you seeing?

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Only 5 percent contained for the time being. I mean, they certainly have their work cut out for them today.

You know, as we have been talking all day long, and sharing with our viewers across America, we have got very low humidity. The wind has not been that strong. In fact, the wind is probably the strongest it's been all day right now.

Temperatures right -- although, right now, in the shade, they're about in the 90s, up in those hills, they about are into the 100s, around 100, 102 or so.

In this staging area, hard to believe that, just about a few days ago, this place was just a park where kids were able to play Frisbee and what (AUDIO GAP) but now it's kind of an area where people can take a break, get something to eat, get something to drink, relax, even shower off, get a break after being on the lines for some 12 hours battling this blaze that you can just see over here in the hills. Now, although you can't see the fire, you can definitely see the smoke. Take a look at that, Suzanne. Not only are you seeing the billowing clouds that are coming up, the haze, but you can see some of those big cauliflower-looking tops thousands of feet high all coming from, again, that intense heat.

Now, I don't know if you can see this. Michael Love is the photojournalist that's bringing you these great shots across America. You can see a Sikorsky that is coming in right now. This helicopter is going to be making its way to a reservoir, where it's going to fill up with roughly 2,000 gallons of water. It's going to get that -- that supply of water, bring it right back to those hills, and do the very best that it can to distribute the water.

We even have some live video for you that we're going to share with you of the battle that is raging above in those clouds. We're talking about just intense heat, thick, thick smoke, very poor visibility.

In fact, if we had had some stronger winds at the surface, the -- the smoke would not be hanging around quite as much. Visibility would be a little bit easier, an easier job for these pilots to drop that payload of -- of fuel, of flame retardant, or perhaps that water right where it's need.

Unfortunately, they are going to stay up just until sundown. Once sundown comes, obviously, visibility is going to be limited. So, they really can't do a lot of work up there in terms of the air, but they are going to be battling the blaze through the night, through tomorrow, as long as it takes.

Think of it, only five percent contained at this time. They certainly have their work cut out for them -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Reynolds Wolf, thank you very much.

We want to go to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for the very latest information. He is talking about the wildfires now. Let's take a listen.


GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: ... fire officials. So, it's a team effort between fire and law enforcement that makes things happen.

And what is great here again is good coordination between the locals and the state, and also the federal government. And I, of course, I came here because I heard about the terrible tragedy here, about losing 50 homes or so. And that's always terrible, when you lose your home. And we want to make sure that we're here to help assist in every way that we can, and to be here, of course, to declare the emergency declaration immediately, not only for this area, for Placer, but also for Monterey County and for Mariposa County, Los Angeles county.

Whenever there's an emergency, we immediately jump in to action and try to do everything that we can in order to help.

The briefing that I just got, there was -- let me just bring you up to date. There's 275 acres that have burned so far. There's 50 percent contained. Fifty homes, approximately, have been destroyed, and 10 commercial buildings have also been destroyed.

There's -- there have been an evacuation. Several communities are under mandatory evacuation. And I think the key thing I want to mention, also, to the people is that, when you hear from law enforcement anything about the evacuation, follow their orders, because there's so many that think that they have to stay behind and protect their home, but they always -- they sometimes pay dearly for that.

People in Los Angeles were burned because of that. So I think it is important to follow the orders of law enforcement. When they ask you to evacuate, evacuate your homes.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that there's 621 personnel now that are involved in fighting the fires here locally, 90 engines, three helicopters, and 18 bulldozers.

And, on a statewide level, I wanted to bring you up to date. We have so far from the beginning of the year until now, we have had 5,400 fires so far. So...

MALVEAUX: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about the very latest in California, fire -- fires that are burning across the state. He also mentioned one -- not only the fires in Southern California, but the northern end of the state as well, 49 fire in Placer County.

Once again, we will give you the very latest information about the personnel and those fires and the state of people's homes as it develops.

Well, Jack Cafferty is off today.

But, in another story that we are following after Hurricane Katrina, his take-charge attitude won hearts and minds, but could he win votes if he wanted? Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore led the military response to Katrina, but does he want to be a U.S. senator? I will ask him.

The next time you get in your car, beware. There is a new call to ban something you may do that could kill you or someone else.

And fight crime with an iPhone -- a victim uses technology to battle muggers. And you can do it, too.


MALVEAUX: For many people, he was the take-charge leader in the wake of the worst natural disaster in the U.S. and modern history.

After Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, leaving people stranded, homeless and in need of help, Lieutenant General Russel Honore led the military response. And as we mark Katrina's four-year anniversary, we look back at the city's progress. We even ponder what may be next for Honore himself.

Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore joining us now.

Thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You were once called by the mayor someone who was the John Wayne dude, who would take charge and get some stuff done.

In the category of getting some stuff done, will you clear up the rumors and reports, whether or not you're going to make a run for the Senate?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL RUSSEL HONORE (RET.), U.S. ARMY: I'm not running for Senate. I have never said I was running for Senate.

And I applaud those who take the courage to serve their nation. Those in Louisiana that will run and have the courage to run, I encourage them to do so, but I have no personal plans to run for Senate.

MALVEAUX: Do you have any political ambitions, any office that you could see in your future?

HONORE: There are things that I dream about, but they will remain to be...


HONORE: ... dreams until I get my family moved and we figure out what we're going to do in the next few years.

MALVEAUX: You won't give us a little hint at this moment what your dreams may be, or we will wait just a little while longer?

HONORE: That's why they are dreams, Suzanne.



Obviously, we are looking at the four-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There are some things in New Orleans where we see improvements, job numbers, housing, that type of thing.

But you ask a lot of folks who are down there, including my parents, who were just there, and the -- the murder rate number one per capita in the country. How are the police, Louisiana's law enforcement, doing in terms of -- of trying to control that city? And do they need to bring back the National Guard?

HONORE: Well, do I think they need help.

I spent a couple of days down there over the weekend talking to a lot of police, who have been under a lot of strain because of the pressure put on them by the high crime rate. Most of them will attribute that high crime rate to the flow of drugs through New Orleans.

And I think we do need a state and federal effort to help seal that city off to stop the drugs from flowing in, which is attributable to the murders that's happening in the city.


MALVEAUX: Would you say that's the National Guard?

HONORE: Well, there's the National Guard. We have got a lot of federal capability that probably could do some more work there. And we need some more police on the streets in New Orleans, whether it's the National Guard. That National Guard brigade from the Louisiana National Guard is getting ready to go back to Iraq, Suzanne, in January.

MALVEAUX: I want you to take a listen. We heard from President Obama over the weekend, his radio address, saying that he would make a pledge to go back to New Orleans by the end of the year.

But what one of our Democratic strategists from CNN, James Carville, he felt he's -- he's rather concerned, and that's just not good enough for him. He's frustrated. I want you to take a listen to what he told our John King on "STATE OF THE UNION."


JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The president said he would go there. There are some -- soon, this year -- there are some who are saying, why hasn't he been there...


KING: ... already.

But take me to your hometown in the sense of, four years later, what's right, what's still wrong, and is there something the president could do tomorrow, next week or next month to help out?

CARVILLE: First of all, I'm a Democrat, and this is a Democratic president.

I would describe myself as slightly miffed that he hasn't been down yet. But he says he's coming down before the end of the year. And we're hospitable people, and we certainly will welcome him.

He's had any number of -- of Cabinet people that -- and -- and they have been very, very helpful.


MALVEAUX: General, does the president need to go down sooner?

HONORE: I think what we need from the president is for his staff to continue to -- the progress of releasing some of these decisions that have been in limbo for almost four years.

MALVEAUX: Like what?


HONORE: Like one of them to being the Charity Hospital.

It was a combined effect between the state and the federal government not resolving the amount of money FEMA would pay to rebuild that hospital. Time has passed. The economy has changed. We think the federal government and the people that I talked to in the state, that the federal government should take this on and help the state of Louisiana rebuild that into a world-class medical center for the poor people in the Gulf Coast region.

MALVEAUX: Has the president done enough, in your view?

HONORE: I think the president and Secretary Napolitano and Mr. Fugate others have lessened the amount of bureaucracy it takes, along with the Louisiana recovery fund formation to start getting through the bureaucracy of releasing that federal money.

But there's a lot of federal money sitting there that has not been obligated because they are still arguing over rules. The thing with the charity hospital has been kicked down the road again to a foreign arbitrator to resolve.


HONORE: The federal government could easily solve that problem, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you very much, Lieutenant Russel Honore, for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

HONORE: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: The coroner has ruled Michael Jackson's death a homicide by overdose. Now Joe Jackson says that everyone involved should pay. Who does the king of pop's father blame?

And what do Goofy and Mickey Mouse have in common with the Incredible Hulk? A new deal could make them one big happy Disney family.


MALVEAUX: You're looking at pictures of the Station fire brought to you by KTLA, this in California, where the fire is burning.

So far, just five percent of the blazes there that are actually under control. We are still watching these pictures as this fire develops. We are soon going to be speaking with a helicopter pilot who flew over the fires to give us some details, firsthand perspective of what he actually saw earlier in the day.

I want to bring in our T.J. Holmes, who is monitoring all the stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

And, T.J., good to see you. What are you following?

T.J. HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good to see you as well, Suzanne.

Up first here, Michael Jackson's father says someone should pay for his son's death. This comes in an interview with "The Today Show." Joe Jackson says he never heard anything about Propofol until it was associated with his son's death.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You want someone to pay?

JOE JACKSON, FATHER OF MICHAEL JACKSON: Well, someone should pay -- not just someone, but all of them should pay that's involved.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the doctors?

JACKSON: I didn't say doctors. Everybody else that's involved.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anybody that's involved should pay?

JACKSON: That's right.


HOLMES: Well, the coroner's office says Jackson's death was a homicide, caused mostly by propofol and another sedative.

Meanwhile, former Ohio Congressman James Traficant -- you might remember that name -- he's set to be released Wednesday from a federal prison. The nine-term Democrat served seven years for corruption, after being convicted of bribery and racketeering. He now faces three years probation.

Traficant's wild hair, some would call it, that contributed to a somewhat offbeat reputation he had, which included polyester suits and "Star Trek" references on the House floor. He's only the second member since the Civil War to be kicked out for unethical behavior.

Finally -- that's it for now, Suzanne.


HOLMES: Got some more coming up for you in just a bit, but I will leave it there for now.


HOLMES: See you soon.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thanks, T.J.

Well, many people are fleeing, for fear of their lives. California is ablaze from one part of the state to another. And we're going to get a bird's-eye view of the raging fires. Helicopter pilot J.T. Alpaugh is here.

And it could be hell in a tropical paradise. There are hurricane warnings for a popular tourist destination.



Happening now: the search for a successor to the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Attention turns to Joe Kennedy II. CNN's Jessica Yellin considers the possibility.

Three fishermen lost at sea and given up for dead -- their rescue nothing short of amazing. Now they are sharing their story of survive.

And CNN's Ali Velshi back on the CNN Express and taking the people's pulse on issue number one. He is bound for Indiana, where a big jobs producer is now shutting down.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

California is burning. A massive fast-moving wildfire already has scorched more than 130 square miles, almost 86,000 acres of brush and trees just north of Los Angeles, and it is spreading in all directions. It has destroyed at least 18 homes, and flames threaten the historic Mount Wilson Observatory.

Two firefighters died yesterday when their truck ran off a mountain road. Twenty-five-hundred-plus firefighters are battling this one relentless fire.

Joining me on the phone is -- is helicopter pilot J.T. Alpaugh, who is no stranger to this kind of firefighting.

Thank you very much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You were up there earlier today taking a close look at these fires.

What did you see?

J.T. ALPAUGH, HELICOPTER PILOT BATTLING CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES: Well, Suzanne, first off, we have been flying for the past three days on this fire.

And the sheer massiveness of the fire, it's incredible. You mentioned it earlier, 130 square miles. This is in the Angeles National Forest, which is in the San Gabriel Mountains, which basically divides the Los Angeles Basin from the desert, now, an extremely large, large area. It's almost about 60, 70 miles in circumference if you were able to drive a car around it. But it's an extremely desolate area, lots of canyons. Lots of homes were lost in Big Tujunga Canyon, but it's just a massive fire. And the smoke from this fire is just drenching the Los Angeles Basin with this heavy, thick, choking smoke.

So, it's extremely, extremely vile, as far as the smoke is concerned. We have flown the circumference of the fire you see in that red zone in the map. And that just gives you a little bit of an idea how large that is.

Now, the Mount Wilson Observatory which you spoke about is also a broadcast center for all of the Los Angeles television stations. Their broadcast towers sit atop that hilltop, and it's the highest point in Los Angeles at about 6,000 feet, broadcasting to all the television stations. That is in some serious danger.

Firefighters trying to make a stand -- and you see in the upper right -- with Phos-Check drops. That's that red chemical that lays down on that fire. And they put those lines ahead of the fire so when the fire burns up to it, it dwindles out.

MALVEAUX: And how successful have they been so far?

ALPAUGH: Well, very successful in the past two days of laying that Phos-Check down, but today it's a different story, Suzanne. There's so much smoke. There's very little wind today, but a lot of smoke, which is hampering the aerial attack of this fire.

So, you see all this footage. What they are doing is now they are around the north side and trying to lay some of this Phos-Check down to try to stop this fire.

But right now, they're just trying to contain it. They don't expect containment for at least two weeks. That gives you an idea of how large this fire is.

But the aerial battle continuing to go on. Unfortunately, we lost those firefighters in that tragic accident near Mount Gleason. So, 18 homes destroyed.

It's just a massive fire, and you can't even get a perspective on this of how large it is. It's just massive.

MALVEAUX: And when you take a look at this, can you determine at all how much of this fire is contained? Or is this still just burning out of control?

ALPAUGH: Well, as of this morning, we believe that they have zero containment, and maybe five percent containment. But, I mean, the massive scale of this fire, that's nothing. And what you're looking at pictures of, that's the Mount Wilson Observatory there, where all the broadcast stations are. But very little containment at this time.

The fire is moving from the south to the north, through the San Gabriel Mountains, and working its way towards these desert communities where there are homes in the Acton area. So, they are trying to get ahead of it, trying and lay down that Phos-Check.

But this is a fuel-driven fire at this time. We don't have those Santa Ana conditions. That's that heavy northerly wind that comes from the north. We don't have those conditions right now, and I can't imagine what this fire would be like with heavy winds. But right now, it's all fuel-driven and they're just trying to get it contained.

MALVEAUX: OK, J.T. Thank you very much.

I want to go directly to our own Chad Myers, who is monitoring all of this, to talk about the potential of an ongoing hurricane -- oncoming hurricane, whether or not that would actually help put out some of these fires.

Chad, what do we know about this?

Oh, sorry about that. We're not hearing Chad. We're going to bring Chad back as soon as we get his audio so he can give us a sense of what is happening there, the potential of a possible storm, and what that might mean for the hurricanes that -- rather, for the wildfires that are burning in California.

Well, drivers beware. Something you may sneak and do, it could kill you or others. Now there is a new call to ban it to save lives.

And during the presidential campaign critics blasted her knowledge of world affairs. Now Sarah Palin could be set to take the world by storm. Wait until you hear how.

And muggers prove to be no match for an iPhone. Find out how one victim used the phone to fight crime, and how you can do the same.



MALVEAUX: Also want to go to T.J. Holmes, who has the very latest breaking news on that -- what's called the Station Fire that is in California that we were asking Chad about, whether or not there would be any chance of rain from the hurricane that would help them out over there. But obviously there are new developments with that major fire that's taking place -- T.J.

HOLMES: Yes, and what we're getting, Suzanne, is that authorities there are expanding the mandatory evacuations.

Now, this thing has essentially exploded over the weekend. We started here talking about it on Saturday at 5,000. Then it was up the next day to 20,000. Ten thousand homes being threatened by this thing, but now officials down there are expanding the evacuation zone. And I am directly quoting from a press release from the fire department down there saying, "People are asked to assemble their families and leave the area."

The area we're talking about, the Station Fire. This is Canada, the Flintridge area. This is the particular city we're talking about where some 20,000 acres as of yesterday expanded, even doubled in size from today. We've been reporting two fire fighters we know were killed in this thing, but now they are expanding the area of mandatory evacuations, particular areas and streets they are giving for this. But they are just -- essentially, Suzanne, they see the danger, they see that danger growing, and it's expanding now, the areas where they are telling people you need to get up and get out right now.

MALVEAUX: OK, T.J. Thanks. And we'll get right back to you as more information develops about those fires.

There is a growing push to outlaw texting while behind the wheel of a car. Now a governors' group has issued a sweeping new recommendation aimed at stopping the practice nationwide.

Our CNN's Brian Todd has the details -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, right now texting while driving is illegal in fewer than 20 states and the District of Columbia, but the Governors' Highway Safety Association is now encouraging all states to ban the practice, and there's recent information that indicates just how dangerous it really is.


TODD (voice-over): From inside the car, a close call captured on video. The screen on the top right shows a driver reaching down and punching cell phone keys. Simultaneously, on the top left, a child darts out into the street. She looks up just in time to avoid a collision that could have killed the youngster.

This motorist knew she was under surveillance. She was part of a recent study on distracted driving from Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute.

TOM DINGUS, VIRGINIA TECH TRANSPORTATION INSTITUTE: The most alarming result that we found is that texting while driving is 23 times more dangerous than just driving by itself. And that's a huge number.

TODD: Evidence of that is everywhere. In this widely circulated video, the driver of a bus for the disabled in Texas picks up a device and starts hitting the key pad, looks up far too late, and this is the result.

In real world situations testing hundreds of people driving millions of miles, the study found texting is more dangerous than calling on a cell phone and far more dangerous than listening on one. The testers measured six-second time frames and found drivers texting took their eyes off the road for almost five of those six seconds.

RICH HANDOWSKI, VIRGINIA TECH TRANSPORTATION INST.: So, if you look at highway speeds going at, say, 55 miles an hour, that would take you more than the length of a football field without your eyes on the forward roadway, and a lot can happen in that time period.

(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: And, an alarming number of us are engaging in this dangerous practice. According to a recent survey by AAA, 21 percent of drivers admitted to reading or sending an e-mail or text message while driving in the previous month -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Brian.

Well, a note to muggers. If you're going to steal an iPhone, it might come back to bite you. Three men were arrested in Pittsburgh after a mugging victim led police back to his iPhone using the phone's GPS.

Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is following the story.

Abbi, you know, you wonder, if this gets stolen, what do you do? How did that happen?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: You might just be able to get it back.

It was GPS that led police to this Pittsburgh area diner where the suspect was standing in the parking lot holding this stolen iPhone. It was just before 1:00 a.m. on Saturday morning when a 23- year-old Carnegie Mellon student says he was robbed in Pittsburgh, robbed of his wallet, his credit cards, and his iPhone.

He then remembered that there was this new feature from Apple, Find my iPhone, and minutes later he was at his computer watching his belongings move across the city. With the police on the phone now with him, he saw his stuff stop at an ATM, stop again at a gas station.

Yes, his credit cards were used both times. And then it came to rest in this area here.

So, now he went on to Google Street View to figure out where they were and saw this was a Wal-Mart just across the street from a diner where this pinpoint seemed to be moving. Police swooped in, picked up three people. Two of them had the gun used during the robbery. The other one holding the iPhone.

MALVEAUX: That's incredible when you see how they tracked that.

Did he get his stuff back?

TATTON: He got almost all of his stuff back. And this feature, Find my iPhone, you've got to pay for it through the service called MobileMe, but in this case it seems like it was worth it.

MALVEAUX: Well, OK. Well, I've lost my iPhone a few times, so it sounds like a good idea.

TATTON: Sign up.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Abbi. Well, President Obama is closer to home but he is still on vacation. With Mr. Obama out of the picture, the health care battle is in the hands of congressional leaders. Could this particular battle cost the Democrats their edge in the House? That's in our "Strategy Session."

And Massachusetts sets the wheels in motion to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Ted Kennedy's death. His nephew Joe a top contender to carry on the Kennedy legacy.


MALVEAUX: Town hall meetings, angry constituents, and uncertain political footing. The heated debate over health care reform is raising questions about whether the Democrats can maintain their edge in Congress.

Well, joining me for today's "Strategy Session" are Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Hilary Rosen and Republican strategist John Feehery.

Good to have you both here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Want to start off here -- obviously, you see these town hall meetings, very exciting, very emotional. You've got the poll numbers that are dipping a bit for the president, and he's on vacation at the moment.

I want to read here -- this is from Politico -- whether or not this is really going to have an impact on 2010 congressional races for the Democrats. It says, "Some of the most prominent and respected handicappers can now envision an election in which Democrats suffer double-digit losses in the House. Not enough to provide the 40 seats necessary to return the GOP to power, but enough to put them within striking distance."

Put on your cap, if you will, and handicap this.

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: You know, first of all, most elections lose seats in sort of the midterm, but it's very early here. People elected the Democrats to pass health care reform, to create energy independence, to, you know, affect education investment. The Democrats are well on their way to doing that, and I think that when push comes to shove later on, the election gets heated next year, people will see results, and they will reward the Democrats for it.

MALVEAUX: You don't believe anybody is in jeopardy?

ROSEN: I think there are going to be some seats in jeopardy, but...

MALVEAUX: About how many?

ROSEN: ... I just don't see anywhere near the numbers that the cynics are saying now, you know. There may be six or seven seats where people are really panicked about the numbers, but beyond that, I just don't think we're going to lose so many.

MALVEAUX: John, how would you handicap it?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, Hilary is right on one place, and that is the party in power usually loses midterm seats. And they usually lose about 20 seats. So, that's pretty conservative, to say that they're going to lose double-digit seats.

They will probably lose at least 20 and maybe more. The big question is, do Republicans have a shot at getting it back? And people do want to check on President Obama.

And I think if you look at a lot of those more moderate districts that went for George Bush in two elections, and then went for President Obama in this election, they are swinging back. Independents are swinging back towards Republicans. It's not going to be a pretty election, especially if you look at what's happening in this November in Virginia and New Jersey. If those two seats go, it's going to be bad for the Democrats.

ROSEN: John raises a fair point, which is, do people want a check on President Obama, or do they want to see the Congress and the president working well together? And, you know, that was an issue in 2006 when the Democrats took over the House when George Bush was president. They wanted a check on George Bush, but yet the Democrats won the sweeping victory last year because they didn't want the gridlock that they experienced. This is a big open question.

MALVEAUX: So, Hilary, take off your partisan hat for a moment. If you were actually advising the Republicans, how would you tell them to capitalize off of this, the Democrats are in trouble here? What would you say to them?

ROSEN: You know, I really think the Republicans are making a mistake by trying to sort of take down health care as a way to take down the president. I think, ultimately, their constituents are not going to feel well served by this, and I don't think this is a good strategy for them. And I would be advising them different were I to be a Republican.

MALVEAUX: And John, for the Democrats, how do they turn this around if there is a risk of them losing some seats? What would you say to them now to make sure that doesn't happen?

FEEHERY: Well, I'm talking to a specific set of Democrats. Those are the Blue Dog Democrats that are most in danger.

The first thing I would say to them is, announce that Nancy Pelosi should resign, because that would help them back home. Second, say that you're not going to in any way vote for...

MALVEAUX: Wow. How realistic is that? Hilary's laughing at you right now.

FEEHERY: It's somewhat realistic. A lot of these Blue Dogs are running very scared. MALVEAUX: You think?

FEEHERY: And second of all, what they do is they say they are not going to do any kind of health care reform unless there's bipartisan support, because, I'll tell you, this is a real feeling out in the country, that they should not vote for this health care plan. And for Independents and moderate Democrats, they do not like this plan, and it can be bad news for them.

MALVEAUX: All right. Let's turn the corner real quick here.

Sarah Palin once again in the news, former Alaskan governor, obviously the VP candidate. Now she's signed on with the Washington Speakers Bureau. She's about 85 percent done with her book almost or so, perhaps six figures for speaking.

What are these signs telling you? Is this somebody who could essentially take the political world by storm in the next couple of months?

ROSEN: Far be it for me to try and limit a private citizen now from making a living. The idea that somebody is going to pay $100,000 for Sarah Palin's insights is interesting to me, but I've long taken the view that Democrats make a mistake attacking Sarah Palin.

We would turn her into a political celebrity for the other side the more we attack her. I just think let her out there, fall on her own.


FEEHERY: She is a unique political celebrity already, and that's why she's commanding these big figures.

ROSEN: I think that's right.

FEEHERY: People want to hear from her. Whether they love her or hate her -- they love to love her, they love to hate her, and they love to listen to her. The media especially loves her, which helps drive up those things.

We'll see what she has to say in her book. Maybe she will have some interesting things and maybe not. We'll see.

MALVEAUX: All right.

Well, six figures, you know, just to speak, obviously she's going to be making some money as she goes along. And we'll see how all that shapes up.

So, thank you very much, Hilary, John.

FEEHERY: Thanks.

MALVEAUX: Well, politics is not for the faint of heart. Things appear to be getting ugly in Virginia's governor's race. What one candidate previously said about women at work and gay rights some say could sink his campaign.

And new details in a bizarre case. We have the latest on the situation involving a man who allegedly kidnapped a girl, fathered her two children, and kept her captive for 18 years.


MALVEAUX: In today's "Political Ticker," a bruising fight for Virginia's governor's mansion. Virginia is a swing state politically important to Republicans, as well as Democrats, and right now the governor's race appears to be getting a bit nasty.

It involves a master's thesis written by the Republican candidate, Virginia Attorney General Republican Bob McDonnell

Let's bring in CNN Deputy Political Director Paul Steinhauser to tell us what is in the thesis.

And what is he saying about it now? Can you explain this to us?


And this is a 20-year-old thesis from 1989. At the time, McDonnell was a graduate student at Regent University in Virginia Beach. That's an evangelical school that Pat Robertson founded.

And here's a couple of things he said in this. And it was kind of like a stepping stone with how Republicans should dealing with social issues.

Among the things he described, working women and feminists as detrimental to the family. And he also said that government policy should favor married couples over cohabitors, homosexuals or fornicators.

Now, after he wrote this, McDonnell went on to public life. He served as a state lawmaker and also as a state attorney general. And he tried to, you know, push forward some of this agenda.

But, now the candidate for Republican, for governor of Virginia, is saying, you know, he's changed his stance on some of these issues as he's aged. And he says he's now a big proponent of working women -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK. Paul, thank you very much.

Now to fresh criticism of the Obama administration from a very vocal critic. Former Vice President Dick Cheney is blasting the administration over its handling of North Korea. Cheney even has harsh things to say about Bill Clinton's recent trip there to free two American journalists.

Our CNN foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, has more -- Jill. JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, Dick Cheney was one of the most hawkish members of the Bush administration on North Korea, and he hasn't let up in his criticism of the Obama administration's policy on Pyongyang.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): A former vice president takes a former president to task over North Korea.


DOUGHERTY: In an interview with Fox News, Dick Cheney says it was a mistake for Bill Clinton to travel to Pyongyang in August to bring back two Korean-American journalists freed by the North Koreans.

CHENEY: They probably are the worst proliferators of nuclear technology any place in the world today, and there ought to be a price for that.

DOUGHERTY: The Obama administration is firing back, defending Mr. Clinton's trip as a humanitarian mission separate from the overall U.S.-North Korean relationship.

GIBBS: I'm not entirely sure that Dick Cheney's predictions on foreign policy have borne a lot of fruit over the last eight years in a way that have been either positive or, to the best of my recollection, very correct.

DOUGHERTY: But did Mr. Clinton's meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il end up paying off?

Just four months ago, the North was testing a nuclear weapon and shooting off missiles. Since Clinton's visit, Pyongyang has released four South Korean fishermen it arrested, sent top officials to the funeral of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, and is opening traffic on a heavily guarded border.

Recently, it sent a delegation to meet with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to discuss relations with the U.S.


DOUGHERTY: While the State Department says the saber-rattling may have stopped, the North still has to return to six-nation nuclear talks.

KELLY: We are not ready to sit down and talk in any kind of substantive way on these security issues with North Korea until they agree to this multilateral context.


DOUGHERTY: Meanwhile, the world community continues to implement sanctions to pressure North Korea back to those talks. The United Arab Emirates seizing a ship with North Korean arms bound for Iran.

Next week, Special Emissary to North Korea Stephen Bosworth travels to the region -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you very much, Jill.


Happening now, the massive wildfire raging in southern California now deadly and more dangerous than ever, doubling in size just in the last 24 hours. It is now closing in on thousands of homes.

Also, new details emerging of the kidnapping horror story that has shocked the world and the man accused of holding his victim for 18 years while fathering two children by her. Now more people who knew him are speaking out.

An overwhelming emotion as an American teenager returns to a family in a country he barely remembers. We have the heartbreaking (ph) reunion.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.


It was already an unfolding disaster, but since last night, a wildfire burning out of control in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles has exploded, more than doubling in size, now threatening some 10,000 homes. The people who live in them are under mandatory evacuation orders while crews battle not only the flames, but scorching heat and tough terrain.

Our CNN's Casey Wian is on the fire line for us.

And Casey, tell us what the latest is. What are you seeing?

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, a massive wildfire behind me in the Angeles National forest is spreading quickly, and at this point, firefighters do not know how to stop it.