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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Family Found Alive After Three Days in California Woods; Presidential Race Heats Up

Aired December 19, 2007 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening.
We begin with breaking news tonight: one family's amazing story of survival in the woods in the cold. We are actually in the cold where the kids, who have spent the last three days in the California woods, have just returned home. You see them, some of them, there.

That's Alexis, 15, Joshua, 12, and Christopher, 18, as well. They're wrapped in blankets, still cold from their brush with, well, a very dangerous three days. We will take you inside the home. We're getting ready for an interview with them.

Also ahead tonight, the campaign ads you probably won't be seeing unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire, holiday messages from the candidates. What are they really trying to say with them? We will look at the message beyond just merry Christmas.

And your government in action, using nearly $500 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 10 minutes ago, I see a red minivan pull up. I said, who is in there? And they say, that's them. And all of a sudden the three kids emerge 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 VIDEO CLIP)

FREDERICK DOMINGUEZ, SURVIVED THREE DAYS IN CALIFORNIA WOODS: My daughter heard a helicopter. Dad, helicopter.

So, I jumped up, barefooted and all, and I ran across the rocks, went up there, fell in the snow. And it was deep by that time. And then just started waving my hands. And 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 is 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 bought you for Christmas if I thought we weren't going to make it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Just so amazing. I mean, 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 until they could see something. 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'm 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, MOTHER OF MISSING KIDS: 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 OK, 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 (ph).

ALEXIS DOMINGUEZ, SURVIVED THREE DAYS IN CALIFORNIA WOODS: Hi.

COOPER: That's Joshie (ph). 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 DOMINGUEZ, SURVIVED THREE DAYS IN CALIFORNIA WOODS: Yes, we usually do that. And this year, we just went to go get our Christmas tree, and we got lost. And it was snowing and it was nuts.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: When did you realize you were lost?

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

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: You ask a dumb question, you get a good answer.

Lexi, what -- so you realize you're lost. Like, what time is that? I mean, is it -- is it -- was it still light out on Sunday?

A. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, it was still light out. And it didn't -- it got dark really quick, but when we found out that we were lost, it was like, 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 DOMINGUEZ, SURVIVED THREE DAYS IN CALIFORNIA WOODS: Oh, yes, we had the tree, but then we had to abandon it.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: That was probably a wise thing to do.

So, what did you do, Christopher? When you -- when you realize you are lost, what's the first thing you did? C. DOMINGUEZ: 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?

A. DOMINGUEZ: We went -- and we started -- well, I started freaking out.

(LAUGHTER)

A. DOMINGUEZ: And, so my dad went and...

COOPER: Understandably.

(LAUGHTER)

A. DOMINGUEZ: 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 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: What -- Joshua, what was the shelter?

C. DOMINGUEZ: What was the shelter?

(CROSSTALK)

J. DOMINGUEZ: Oh, it was like -- I don't know. It was all, like -- I don't know. It was all like dirty and...

(CROSSTALK)

J. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, it was under a tree. It was all mud. And then we had to clear up the snow.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: So, Christopher...

(CROSSTALK)

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, we were under a tree.

COOPER: It was under a tree?

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, 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 and 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. And he was out cutting branches to cover up the trees. And we just all huddled up together and tried to stay as warm and out of the snow as we possibly could.

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

C. DOMINGUEZ: Well, no, not at all. We weren't prepared for the snow at all. We -- we just thought we were just going to go up to the mountains, get our tree, and go back home. And 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 rescuers -- 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 -- you build the shelter. The snow was pouring down. What was that first night like, Lexi?

A. DOMINGUEZ: 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.

And, so, it was just really, really scary, the most scariest thing that could happen.

COOPER: And did you have a fire or anything?

C. DOMINGUEZ: No, no fire at all. We just held together and tried to stay warm with each other.

(CROSSTALK)

A. DOMINGUEZ: Our body heat.

C. DOMINGUEZ: Try to use body heat and did the best that we could.

COOPER: And did you -- did you sleep at all that night, or was it too cold?

C. DOMINGUEZ: Well, Josh was passed out like a rock.

(LAUGHTER)

C. DOMINGUEZ: But, yes, I didn't get much sleep, and my dad, I know, didn't get much sleep.

(CROSSTALK)

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

Remarkable story.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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 and 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.

Want to go now to our interview live with the -- the family, the 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?

C. DOMINGUEZ: No, not at all.

I was practically halfway out of the tree, the shelter that my dad had made, just trying to keep Josh warm, since I was next to him. And we just did the best that we could.

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

Was that you, Christopher?

C. DOMINGUEZ: Well, we all go camping every year during the summer. So -- but this -- camping how we camp isn't anything like how we did it for these past couple days.

(LAUGHTER)

C. DOMINGUEZ: So...

COOPER: Yes, I can imagine.

So, you wake up the first morning -- and, Lexi, were you able to sleep at all?

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

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

A. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, as much as we can. J. DOMINGUEZ: Yes.

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

C. DOMINGUEZ: Well, we wake up. And the first thing we do is just keep on going, keep on following the road. Hopefully, we will see a -- hopefully, we will see our truck or hopefully we will 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 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. And they turned around.

And just -- we just decided to go back. And it was just -- we were going uphill, and it was just not -- not a smart way to keep on going. And, 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.

So, we just needed to get out of there.

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

A. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, it was.

It -- the first night, we didn't think it was going to snow, and then it started snowing really bad. On the second night, that's when it really started like snowing, and 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, were your feet going deep into the snow? I mean, how -- how were you able to actually walk? It must have been exhausting.

A. DOMINGUEZ: It was -- well, my feet were numb.

(LAUGHTER)

A. DOMINGUEZ: They were so numb. And, so, like, 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 were -- had made socks from your cut-up shirt? That's amazing.

A. DOMINGUEZ: Yes.

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes.

J. DOMINGUEZ: Yes. COOPER: Did that actually work?

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

C. DOMINGUEZ: It worked for a while through the night, and -- but, after a while, they just got wet, since we were by the water. And the snow came in. And it was just hard. And, 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. And it helped. Our feet were pretty cold, but it worked out.

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

C. DOMINGUEZ: No, we had nothing.

A. DOMINGUEZ: No.

C. DOMINGUEZ: We -- we didn't think we were going to be staying four days.

(LAUGHTER)

C. DOMINGUEZ: We thought we were just going to go there, come back home, and get something to eat. And it didn't happen that way.

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

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, it was...

(CROSSTALK)

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, where -- it was like over where the road -- like a bridge type of tunnel.

(CROSSTALK)

C. DOMINGUEZ: 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. What, were you eating the snow or drinking from the creek?

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, 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 -- we managed.

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

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

C. DOMINGUEZ: 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.

So -- especially -- none of us had boots. None of us had -- we weren't prepared for the snow. So, we just figured, we will 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."

A. DOMINGUEZ: "Help."

C. DOMINGUEZ: 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 am hoping you will be able to hear what he's telling us, because I want to sort of go day by day.

Commander, can you hear me?

MATT PEARCE, INCIDENT COMMANDER, BUTTE COUNTY SEARCH AND RESCUE: Yes.

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, Monday -- when was it that you decided to call these guys? I mean, they left Sunday. When they don't show up Monday, that's when you realize 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. And, 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? I mean, we have seen those conditions. We have seen Christopher describing what the snow was like. That must have been a very difficult search.

PEARCE: It was -- it was very difficult.

The -- the weather, being what it was, it's snowing, the terrain was just -- it was horrible. The manzanita 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 have 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. Definitely. And being able to talk to them proves that they did everything right. I mean, 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 the California Highway Patrol helicopter pilot who actually found this family.

Thanks for joining us.

How did you see them?

STEVE WARD, HELICOPTER PILOT, CALIFORNIA HIGHWAY PATROL: Well, we were searching the canyons because the -- the clouds were covering tops of the mountains. So, we were working the canyons. And we had been up there for about a half-an-hour.

And, 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 they had made with a couple of twigs. And, so, that -- we knew that was our party we were looking for.

COOPER: And we're seeing some of the photos that -- that -- that you took.

Christopher, when you heard -- did you hear the helicopter?

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes. We all heard the helicopter.

I -- we were all yelling -- or we were all sitting down at the time. We all had each other's feet and tried -- inside each other's jackets, trying to keep our feet warm, because they were all frozen, and just trying to keep our feet warm. And we heard the helicopter.

And I 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. And we were all just happy, happy to be rescued.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: I'm sure happy is an understatement.

We have got to take a quick break. We are going to be right back with more of this remarkable story about the rescue and what happened then.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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 blankets, 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. We are also going to be talking to Dave White, the paramedic who first treated them on the scene.

Lexi, when -- I want to start with you, though. Was there every a time that you kind of thought, you know, this is it; we're not getting out of here?

A. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, there was a couple of times. Like, I just remember walking and walking and being like, we're not going to make it. It's like, they can't even see us through all this fog. And I just -- there was just a couple of times where 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...

(LAUGHTER)

A. DOMINGUEZ: So, it's OK.

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

(LAUGHTER)

A. DOMINGUEZ: Yes. We don't know what we have yet.

(LAUGHTER)

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

C. DOMINGUEZ: No.

A. DOMINGUEZ: No.

COOPER: Well, whatever you get, it's going to be, I bet, the best presents you ever, ever got.

Christopher, was a time -- I mean, did you ever -- Lexi said she freaked out. Did you ever freak out at any time?

C. DOMINGUEZ: 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. Like, we have already been here a couple of days. What's a couple more days? So...

COOPER: How hungry were you?

(CROSSTALK)

C. DOMINGUEZ: Well, after -- after...

A. DOMINGUEZ: We were so hungry.

(CROSSTALK)

C. DOMINGUEZ: ... a couple of days, it was all right. But it was rough, definitely rough.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Did -- did you...

C. DOMINGUEZ: We like to eat.

(LAUGHTER)

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

C. DOMINGUEZ: Oh, yes. Oh, we talked about it.

A. DOMINGUEZ: We talked about it.

(CROSSTALK)

C. DOMINGUEZ: We were talking about going out to eat.

A. DOMINGUEZ: At the Hometown Buffet...

(CROSSTALK) A. DOMINGUEZ: ... diner.

C. DOMINGUEZ: All you can eat.

(LAUGHTER)

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

C. DOMINGUEZ: Oh, anything. Anything that we could eat, we just wanted it.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

A. DOMINGUEZ: I wanted soup.

J. DOMINGUEZ: Soup.

A. DOMINGUEZ: And brownies.

(LAUGHTER)

C. DOMINGUEZ: 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 onto the culvert. And it worked fine for us, about two-and-a-half 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 a phone -- I just want to ask him.

Dave, what were the conditions like? What were these -- what were the kids like? How were they, in terms of their conditions?

DAVE WHITE, FLIGHT OFFICER MEDIC, CALIFORNIA HIGHWAY PATROL: Well, actually they were remarkably in good condition. I was really surprised that, for the ordeal that they had gone through, that they were actually able to walk up the -- the snowbank to -- 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 the -- two of the younger victims had minor frostbite to the toes. COOPER: Let me ask you now, Christopher, how -- how are you feeling now? I mean, you guys are all wrapped up in blankets sitting there. And I know you're toasty warm now. How do you feel?

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, I'm just ready to go to bed and eat some more pizza and pass out.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Well, I'm not going to keep you much longer, because I don't want to interfere between -- get between you and a bed.

Alexis, how do you feel? Are you still cold?

A. DOMINGUEZ: My feet are definitely still tingling from how numb they were and stuff, but it's -- I'm hanging in there.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Josh, how do you feel?

J. DOMINGUEZ: I feel good, just happy to be home.

COOPER: Is there...

J. DOMINGUEZ: Because I didn't think we were going to make it.

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

(LAUGHTER)

C. DOMINGUEZ: The whole thing.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

A. DOMINGUEZ: The snow.

C. DOMINGUEZ: It is something you're not going to forget, for sure.

But I don't know. It's Lexi in there, in the tunnel singing her heart out.

(LAUGHTER)

C. DOMINGUEZ: That's what I remember, for sure.

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

(LAUGHTER)

A. DOMINGUEZ: Any song that came to my head. (LAUGHTER)

A. DOMINGUEZ: Just someone would say, sing this song, and I would be like, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

A. DOMINGUEZ: And I would just start singing it.

J. DOMINGUEZ: We would all help her, too.

(LAUGHTER)

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

A. DOMINGUEZ: Yes.

J. DOMINGUEZ: Yes.

C. DOMINGUEZ: Yes, for sure.

A. DOMINGUEZ: Definitely.

COOPER: Well, it's -- it's so great to see you all. You know, 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, you know, I'm so happy that your family is back and with you safe and sound. And I'm sure you have got a lot of pizza there and a lot of food to give them, and maybe some soup and some brownies, too, you will get as well.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Guys, I really -- I really do appreciate it. It's great to -- to see you all. A lot of times, these stories don't end well.

And it's a real pleasure to talk to you safe and sound. You have a great night. And get some sleep.

J. DOMINGUEZ: Thank you.

A. DOMINGUEZ: Thank you.

C. DOMINGUEZ: Thank you.

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

A lot more to cover -- just ahead tonight, a new shift in the race for 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.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Another big swing in the polls going to Iowa and 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. John McCain is in second with Rudy Giuliani another six points back at 16 percent.

Joining me to talk about the issues and the "Raw Politics" behind the polls, CNN's John King and Jeffrey Toobin, along with Jennifer Donohue 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 the different in New Hampshire?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first, I'd be careful about saying 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 a clear lead over her opponents, especially on health care and the economy.

The same with Governor Romney, who's also up. 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 DONOHUE, NEW HAMPSHIRE INSTITUTE OF POLITICS, ST. ANSELM COLLEGE: I would say it is to some extent. I think 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.

COOPER: Yes.

DONOHUE: 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. And about half -- well, maybe 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: Yes. Or disregarded with two weeks left to go.

DONOHUE: In some ways.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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've been laying out his positions on a couple of areas. Governor Huckabee raised taxes more than Bill Clinton had. Governor Huckabee's record is more liberal than -- 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. And I think we can get the record straightened up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Not really any surprises. It's the kind of stuff that happens, especially as the clock is ticking. Romney's been falling further behind Huckabee in Iowa, though, despite outspending him ten to one.

TOOBIN: You know, 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 and a sweep of the two first states.

COOPER: We're going to have more "Raw Politics" next. 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.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

That's what so much -- 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 could be saying a lot more. The "Raw Politics" of that now from CNN's Joe Johns.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Top of any 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.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Where did I put universal pre-K? OK. 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. Thirty-seven 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 fruit cake or something.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fruit cake? What? GIULIANI: How about a really nice fruit cake?

JOHNS: So much levity. Time for a 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, WIFE OF BARACK OBAMA: We'd like to take a moment to thank you and your family.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Merry Christmas. Happy holidays.

JOHNS: Nice ads. I'll put them next to my lump of coal.

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: We're back now with CNN's John King, Jeffrey Toobin, along with Jennifer Donohue of the 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: Wow, that Joe Johns is a Grinch.

COOPER: I know.

KING: He is...

COOPER: 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. Then you have the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary 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. So 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 mean, I just think this is a new low. They're a bunch of phony bolognas.

DONAHUE: A new low? Wait a minute, wait a minute. 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 Kerrey talking about Obama. A low is what happened last week with the issue of the drug use.

COOPER: Did you actually learn anything?

(CROSSTALK)

DONAHUE: I mean, this is -- this is a Christmas ad.

COOPER: Do you think we learn anything about these candidates, though, in these ads, Jennifer?

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: Well, you know, shame on the voters then. I mean, what about -- what about, you know, an ad that says, "I won't raise your taxes," or "Huckabee's a bum," or "Huckabee's great." I mean, these -- this is what politics is. It's not total phoniness about -- about Christmas.

I mean, you know, it's bad enough that Christmas has been commercialized. Now it's being politicized, as well.

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

TOOBIN: What would you expect? What would you expect of people who want to be president of the United States?

DONAHUE: You're surprised -- you're surprised that politicians are acting like politicians. I mean, 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 showed up. If you 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, that this is low at all?

KING: It's certainly not low. There are -- 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 in the sense that, look, 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, 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 likeability matters in politics as much as issues, and these ads will either work or backfire. But it does matter.

COOPER: John King...

TOOBIN: Could I just add one thing?

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

TOOBIN: No, I'd like to say, on behalf of my family, Amy, Ellen and Adam, merry Christmas to you.

DONOHUE: You're such a sellout. You're promoting his family. You see, you're rising to a new low.

COOPER: Next time you've got to bring your family with you.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. We'll just happen to have a burning fireplace behind me.

DONOHUE: 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.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Another 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 any time 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. Twenty-seven months barely, 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."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The numbers are staggering. After Hurricane Rita, nearly 500 million federal dollars 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 one percent.

HELENA SAUNDERS, SABINE PASS RESIDENT: This is my little house.

KAYE: This 69-year-old grandmother from Sabine Pass has been living in this FEMA trailer since the storm.

(on camera) So your house used to be right out there?

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

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

(on camera) Do you think the state has done a decent job of getting money disbursed?

H. SAUNDERS: Right now? No, I think it -- within two years, something should have been done by now for -- for us in this little community.

KAYE (voice-over): It's not all the state. Most federal money didn't reach Texas until 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?

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

MICHAEL GERBER, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING & COMMUNITY AFFAIRS: There's just intensive rules that you have to work through. And it's very intensive casework. KAYE (voice-over): Michael Gerber says the pace has quickened: 120 homes now built or bid out. Not enough for people here.

(on camera) 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 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?

(voice-over) 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.

(on camera) Has your agency failed or been a success in this process?

GERBER: I think it's -- I think it's been mixed results.

KAYE (voice-over): The audit also says there weren't enough workers to handle the caseload.

(on camera) These people had nowhere to live, and part-time employees were being used to handle their caseloads. How can that be OK? 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: There were 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 jobs.

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

KAYE (voice-over): Helena Saunders's application shows she applied for aid December 6, 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's pick-up, we got to see the progress for ourselves. (on camera) How do you feel when you drive around and you see that your town is still not put back together?

A. SAUNDERS: It's really sad, you know. 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, it's really difficult at times.

KAYE: We've been driving around here all day, and the need is apparent. Twelve million dollars 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.

(voice-over) Back at Helena Saunders's trailer, hope is running low.

(on camera) Are you confident you'll get this money any time 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Yes, emergency funding, two years late. Check out Randi's story on the blog. For more details on what money could still come their way, go to CNN.com/360 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 -- resident who's taking Christmas lights and holiday cheer to a -- kind of a bizarre level. It actually looks a little bit dangerous there. Wow, that will freak you out. It's our "Shot of the Day" next on 360. Wow.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: You know some people go overboard with Christmas lights at 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.

We'll have that story. But first, Randi Kaye joins us with a "360 Bulletin" -- Randi.

KAYE: I want to see more of that, Anderson.

A two-alarm fire caused minor to moderate damage in the building where Vice President Dick Cheney has his ceremonial offices. It's right next to the White House. Cheney wasn't around, but more than 1,000 employees were evacuated. No one hurt.

Officials believe the blaze started in an electrical closet or telephone bank.

House lawmakers blasted the Justice Department today for not appearing at a hearing into rape allegations by a former Halliburton employee. The Texas woman says Halliburton offered little to no support after she was allegedly gang-raped by co-workers in Baghdad.

At today's hearing, lawmakers compared the lawlessness and sexual harassment among government contractors in Iraq to America's Wild West of the 1800s.

Police in Mexico have arrested a 24-year-old man in the death of a Kansas college student who led a secret life as an Internet porn star. Eighteen-year-old Emily Sander was seen alive in November, leaving a Kansas bar with the suspects, who had been living in the U.S. legally.

Sanders's body was found six days later. Police say her secret life online had no connection to the crime.

And the secret is out. "TIME" magazine's 2007 person of the year is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He beat out Al Gore and J.K. Rowling among others.

"TIME" says the 55-year-old leader got the nod for bringing stability to a country in chaos. And maybe, just maybe, take a look at this picture of Putin -- there you go -- bearing his presidential pecs. Many folks wondering maybe that is actually what got him "TIME's" vote. Or maybe not.

COOPER: Yes, I don't know about that.

This -- I think this woman should have gotten the person of the year award. It comes to us -- it's "The Shot" tonight. It comes to us from Tallahassee, Florida, where one of the locals is doing her best to spread holiday cheer.

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 -- 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 any 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: I'm sure. I'm sure.

But you know, Anderson, dancing Candy Strand, as we like to call her, reminds me of some other dancers. Remember these moves? You haven't forgotten.

COOPER: The prisoners.

KAYE: The prison inmates in the Philippines. They are performing Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

COOPER: Yes.

KAYE: We hear the music there. And the dance routine, part of their daily exercise program, as you know by now. Apparently, the prisoners thought their ordinary exercises were just flat-out boring, but "Thriller," as you can see, is a real big hit. Their routine has been downloaded more than nine 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 not sure.

COOPER: At least colloquially.

KAYE: Or they should be. Yes.

COOPER: Yes. We'll leave it there.

KAYE: Let's leave it there.

COOPER: Randi, thanks very much.

Remember you can get your 360 fix 24/7, as the kids like to say, on our Web site. You've got to check it out. You'll find a link to our blog and our daily podcast, plus details on the huge New Year's Eve party that's live from Times Square. I think it's like -- it's like the 20th year we've done this in a row. But log on, check it out. Share your thoughts.

Kathy Griffin is going to be our very special guest, New Year's Eve, live in Times Square. There's going to be mayhem. We'd like to hear from you on the blog.

Up next, three kids rescued from three days in the snowy wilderness tell us how they and their father survived. It's a 360 exclusive. You won't see them anywhere else. Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Good evening. We begin with breaking news tonight. One family's amazing story of survival in the woods, in the cold. We're actually in the home where the kids, who have spent the last three days in the California woods, have just returned home. You see them -- some of them there. That's Alexis, 15, Joshua, 12, and Christopher, 18, as well. They're wrapped in blankets, still cold from their brush with -- well, a very dangerous three days.

We'll take you inside the home. We're getting ready for an 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."

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