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AMERICAN MORNING

X-Mas Eve Travel Crush; Last Minute Shoppers Fan Out; Season's Greetings from Campaign Trail

Aired December 24, 2007 - 05:59   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Holiday hazards.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's absolutely crazy out.

ROBERTS: Pile-ups, blackouts, airport delays. The latest on the deadly winter storm that's wreaking havoc on holiday travel.

All-nighter, working overtime to boost a sluggish season. We're live with some last-minute bargain hunters.

Plus, a Christmas campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sixty polls since December 1st.

ROBERTS: Is a late push in Iowa falling on deaf ears?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of it gets ignored right now. We are focusing on the Christmas crunch (ph).

ROBERTS: We're live from the campaign trail on this AMERICAN MORNING.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: Good morning. And thanks very much for joining us on this Monday, the 24th of December, Christmas Eve. I'm John Roberts.

ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: Are you done with your shopping?

ROBERTS: Pretty much. I've got one more gift to buy.

CHO: Good for you. Good morning, everybody. I'm Alina Cho. Kiran has the morning off. We're so glad you're with us.

ROBERTS: It's shaping up to be the worst year since last year to get home for the holidays. A year ago you remember Denver Airport was closed for two days. This morning, lines are already forming at the airports and people are preparing to spend Christmas Eve in the terminal, all because of a deadly winter storm, blinding snow, 80- mile-an-hour wind gusts, subzero chills across the Plains and the Midwest.

The roads resemble ice rinks. Trees are toppled over, some falling into houses, others as you can see there, laying on and snapping power lines. Police say 11 people are dead as a result of this terrible weather. Tens of thousands are coming down to the Christmas stretch without lights and without any heat.

Ice and whiteout conditions caused a half-mile-long pile-up in the Texas Panhandle over the weekend. Police say one man was killed in the wreck that started when a tractor trailer lost control and flipped over. Fifty other cars and trucks followed. Of course, this is an important story on this Christmas Eve, we're going to be following all morning. Alina has got some more information for us now -- Alina.

CHO: That's right, John. It's a different kind of chain reaction at the airports, from coast to coast. Here's a live look at New York's La Guardia Airport. Flights from the Midwest to the New York City area took hours to get off the ground, if they did at all. Now ground zero is Chicago's O'Hare where the wait was averaging close to four hours and the airlines there have already canceled 300 flights at this early hour because of fog and high winds.

(WEATHER REPORT)

ROBERTS: With one day to go now until Christmas, many retailers are very nervous about the bottom line. They are hoping that this final weekend push will push them over their sales forecast. Still, any increase in shopping over last year is likely to be a small one and possibly the smallest gain in five years.

One store that's trying to make the most of the final days is Macy's down at Herald Square in Downtown New York City. It has been open around the clock since Friday. And it is where we find Jim Acosta this morning, live at the Macy's flagship store here in Manhattan.

How goes the shopping there this morning, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, believe it or not, we were surprised when we walked in here this morning. There are actually shoppers here and this is not a bad time to come to Macy's because we were here over the weekend and it was like a shopping mosh pit. This place was crawling with a sea of humanity over the weekend, if you will.

And basically, the retailers, they're pulling out all the stops. Not only are you talking about crazy store hours, customers walking in front of the camera, you're also talking about steep discounts, all in an effort to lure in those last-minute shoppers and there's a big reason why. The reason is the economy.

So far it has been sluggish this year, people worried about those high gas prices, as we know, the housing crisis has also made it very difficult for people to afford the things that they want to afford this time of year. And so yes, stores like Macy's are staying open 24 hours to see what they can do.

And it's not just Macy's, retailers across the country are forecasting a sales growth during the holiday shopping season, somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 percent. That's about a full percentage point lower than the 10-year average. And so yes, retailers are worried and it will be well after Christmas, those after Christmas sales, the gift cards, once those are cashed in, before retailers fully realize just how well they did this holiday season.

But yes, it's a good time to come down here. As you can maybe hear, maybe not hear, the alarm bells are going off because occasionally sometimes somebody might walk through those doors with a shopping bag or something like that.

Me, myself, I will actually pay for my merchandise before I leave the store today, so don't worry about that. But no, the holiday shopping season is not yet over. This department store is staying open until 6:00, some staying open until 10:00 tonight just to take advantage of those last-minute shoppers -- John.

ROBERTS: I was about to say, Jim, we are expecting to see security running behind you there, getting ready for a full tackle.

ACOSTA: Don't tackle me. I've got Christmas coming up, yes.

ROBERTS: You said that it looked like a mosh pit this weekend, but it is kind of looking pretty bare there right now. Are they expecting a large crowd of people today, maybe as New York City starts to wake up?

ACOSTA: Absolutely. You know, even in Manhattan, at this hour, people are still rubbing their eyes and getting a sense of things, but I will tell you that I am still in the process of finishing up my last-minute shopping. I picked up a bike helmet for you, John. I understand you're a little nicked up.

And, Alina, I didn't know what to get you, but I know your shopping habits, so I got a gift card for you for $5,000. I hope that is enough.

CHO: Oh, perfect. That is great, great news. I love gift cards. Get what I want.

ROBERTS: You may have fallen a little short there, Jim.

ACOSTA: All right.

CHO: Oh man.

ROBERTS: Somebody else going out the door without paying. All right. Jim, thanks. We'll check back with you a little bit later on.

CHO: All right. Jim, thanks. Thanks for the gift, by the way.

Also new this morning, a debt crisis. More Americans missing their credit card payments and experts say it will only get worse after the holidays. A report out today from the Associated Press says credit card accounts that are 30 days late are up 26 percent over last year. Accounts that are 90 days overdue are up 50 percent. And complete defaults are up 18 percent. Gas prices are going down, according to the fuel gauge report overnight, the national average for unleaded regular is $2.98 a gallon, that's down 11 cents from a month ago when it was $3.09 a gallon and good news for holiday travelers. But one year ago we were paying $2.34 a gallon.

ROBERTS: Congressman Ron Paul is known as Dr. No on Capitol Hill because of his votes against all kinds of government spending. And he's running for president with a promise to cut the pork. But Sunday on "MEET THE PRESS" Paul was forced to defend himself against charges that he earmarked $400 million of federal money for his district in Texas.

The congressman says it's different, because he doesn't vote for the spending bills, he just takes the cash home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They take our money from us, and the Congress has the authority to appropriate, not the executive branch, and I'm saying that I represent my people, they have the request. It's like taking a tax credit and I put it -- the whole process is corrupt so I vote against everything. I vote against it so I don't endorse the system.

TIM RUSSERT, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": But when it passes overwhelmingly, you take the money back home.

PAUL: I don't take it. That's the system. I'm trying to change that system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Well, the projects range from expanding a hospital cancer center to promoting the Texas shrimp industry. Paul has voted against things like medals for Pope John Paul II and Rosa Parks because of the cost to taxpayers, but he still likes to see that money go home.

Pitcher Roger Clemens is firing back again at accusations made against him in the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drug use in Major League Baseball. The report quotes former Toronto and New York Yankees strength coach Brian McNamee is saying he injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone. Clemens posted a Web video denying that he ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER CLEMENS, NEW YORK YANKEES PITCHER: I did not use steroids, human growth hormone and I've never done so. I did not provide Brian McNamee with any drugs to inject into my body.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: Clemens says that he intends to answer questions about the allegations that he used the drugs in an upcoming "60 MINUTES" interview.

Emotions ran high on Sunday as Kevin Everett returned to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the Buffalo Bills game against the visiting New York Giants. Everett, as you'll recall, was paralyzed from the neck down at a game back in September. He was given a minimal chance of ever walking again. Yesterday though he came back to watch the game, at times using a wheelchair but also seen, as you can see in these pictures, standing up and walking on his own. The bills couldn't quite rise to the challenge, though, they lost to the Giants, 38-21 -- Alina.

CHO: All right. Thanks, John. Back to our top story now, the nightmare holiday travel this Christmas Eve, it's a snowy, icy, windy, foggy mess in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes. Major delays at airports there are having a ripple effect on flyers across the country. Tom Murray of our affiliate WTMJ live for us at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.

So, Tom, good morning. What is it like where you are?

TOM MURRAY, WTMJ REPORTER: Well, good morning, Alina. The good news today is that we're seeing a lot of the early morning flights leaving on time -- or the boards telling us anyways that these flights should leave on time after a weekend where a lot of people were stuck. Some people came in as early as Saturday and still had not gotten a flight out as of last night, hoping to get out on that flight today.

But as you can see, this morning we do have quite a few folks lined up and their flights should be leaving today. I only see one flight on the board as of right now, canceled. There were people that were trying to get out as early as Saturday that just came and saw flight after flight get canceled and they were stuck and perhaps the only thing worse than a lump of coal in your stocking is spending the Christmas holiday in the airport.

But it is Christmas Eve. A lot of those folks hoping for that last chance flight out so they can be with their relatives in time for Christmas morning. We had fog here so bad that if you were driving, you couldn't see 10 feet in front of your car, so it's easy to understand why so many of these people had trouble flying out of Milwaukee. But the good news this morning is that many of these flights do appear to be running on time now.

We're live in Milwaukee, back to you -- Alina.

CHO: Well, let's keep our fingers crossed and hope for clearer weather. Tom Murray of our affiliate WTMJ, live for us in Milwaukee this morning. Tom, thanks -- John.

ROBERTS: And of course, we'll continue to update you all morning on the travel situation in case you've got friends, relatives or loved ones who are trying to get home for Christmas.

And just in time for Christmas, presidential candidate Barack Obama's plan to protect kids from toxic toys. We'll tell you what he has got in mind. And what they wanted was an invigorating jog with their dogs, but what they got was a terrifying confrontation with a pack of wolves. The frightening details coming up on AMERICAN MORNING.

But first, a holiday greeting from some of our men and women serving overseas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, this is Lieutenant Commander Deidre Martinez (ph), stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan. I want to say season's greetings to my parents, Fred (ph) and Wanda (ph) Martinez in Silver City, New Mexico. I love you and I'll see you when I get home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING on this Christmas Eve. Some incredible shots of the morning in our "Quick Hits" now. A rescue team brought a windsurfing Santa to safety in Buffalo. Take a look there. The Coast Guard says a Canadian man dressed as Santa Claus was windsurfing in the Niagara River when the treacherous waves simply became too much. Fort Erie, Ontario, firefighters took him back over the border. The waves were approaching eight feet when he was out there.

Now these Santas were all wet, too. Police in New Zealand say a gang of about 50 drunken Santas went on a rampage at a movie theater, trashing the place and cursing at customers. The raid lasted for all of 20 seconds but they pulled the fire alarm on the way out, too, forcing several hundred people to evacuate the theater. Police say they think it was a group of college students pulling a holiday prank.

They're getting into the Christmas spirit in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Thousands turned out for the second annual Christmas Light Parade on famous Copacabana Beach. The night time parade featured a nativity scene, Cinderella, even Santa Claus. And the black lights apparently made the white gowns of the angels appear much larger than normal -- John.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Alina. An anti-endorsement for candidate Mitt Romney. New Hampshire's Concord Monitor is telling its readers not to vote for the Republican hopeful. They say he lacks the philosophical beliefs to be a trustworthy president. But Romney's camp shrugged off the anti-endorsement, saying the paper's editorial board is considered liberal and that Romney disagrees with their support for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and taking God out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Democrat Barack Obama's holiday campaign promise, he would make sure that toys are safer. Obama says if elected president, he will push for toys from overseas to be tested before they get to America, and that those with even a trace amount of lead would be banned. Obama got in his last campaign pitch last night in Iowa, before taking a Christmas break -- or more appropriately, giving voters a Christmas break.

We got a big response to a segment that we brought you on Friday, did we ever. An interview with Steve Ellis, he is the vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, about pork belly spending, so-called earmarks. Congress just sent President Bush a bill loaded with earmark projects costing taxpayers about $7.4 billion. Ellis outlined examples of some of those projects. At the top of the list was $705,000 for management of the brown tree snake in Guam, and nearly $500,000 earmarked for the Andre Agassi Prep Academy in Las Vegas.

Some of you e-mailed us to say those programs really are deserving of federal funding and we didn't know what we were talking about. Miles Wilson of Cincinnati says -- he has visited the Agassi Academy and says, it's a nonprofit school that benefits children who can't afford a proper education. Wilson says: "This academy does not serve the wealthy and is located in one of the poorest communities in Las Vegas, providing not only a great education for the children they serve, but acting as a sign of redevelopment in an at-risk community."

And as far as that brown tree snake in Guam, we heard from some of you, defending that $75 0 5,000 was a good idea. Katherine Noel from Madison, Wisconsin, writes that the snake is venomous and can eradicate wildlife and ecosystems and can even have an effect on international travel and commerce. Noel writes: "For every brown tree snake that's allowed to escape, that is yet another potential for another island to be decimated."

We invite your comments on any of the stories that you see on AMERICAN MORNING. You can reach us at am@cnn.com. Apparently the brown tree snake is a real problem, not just in Guam but other areas of the South Pacific, and according to these folks, well-deserving of those earmarks.

It is 18 minutes after the hour. Most of the presidential candidates are giving the voters a break today, but with only 10 days until the Iowa Caucuses, the campaigns are taking just a short breather before getting back on the trail. CNN's Dana Bash has got a closer look at the Republican race in Iowa.

And, Dana, you know, we look at this Concord Monitor anti- endorsement of Mitt Romney. Some other things happening. He's having a difficult time the past couple of days.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He did not have the greatest weekend in the world, that's true. They point out that he actually got a newspaper endorsement here in Iowa, but he is waging a multi-front war and New Hampshire is incredibly important to him, as you know, John.

And this anti-endorsement was absolutely blistering, that he got from The Concord Monitor. The headline was "Romney should not be the next president." And actually, inside this editorial, the newspaper called him a phony, said that because he has flip-flopped and changed positions on major issues like taxes, like abortion, like stem cell research, the paper simply said that the readers, the voters in New Hampshire should not vote for Mitt Romney. That is quite unusual. Now the Romney campaign points out that this is a liberal editorial page, which is true, but it's a lot harder for the Romney campaign, John, to explain another bit of bad news that they got from Mitt Romney's hometown newspaper, The Boston Globe. These are hard numbers and the numbers show that Mitt Romney has somebody coming up on his tail and that is John McCain.

Take a look at this poll. Mitt Romney is now at 28 percent. He is still in the lead but just barely. It's really a statistical dead heat. John McCain is right on his heels at 25 percent. Rudy Giuliani in a distant 14 percent. And this explains why Mitt Romney all weekend long was absolutely slamming John McCain on the stump in New Hampshire, hitting an issue that really matters a lot to New Hampshire Republicans, and that is taxes.

He was talking about the fact that John McCain voted against President Bush's tax cuts when he was in the Senate, and said that basically John McCain failed Reagan 101. Now that is a bit of a slippery slope for Mitt Romney because he, himself in the past has said that he didn't want to go back to the days of Reagan-Bush.

So they're going to have a lot of back and forth between Mitt Romney and John McCain. John McCain saying that he simply voted against the tax cuts because he was worried about the fiscal spending being out of control. That's also something that plays very well with libertarian Republicans in New Hampshire -- John.

ROBERTS: Well, maybe lightning can strike twice in New Hampshire for John McCain. We will see. Dana Bash for us this morning in Des Moines. Dana, good to see you, thanks. We'll check back with you a little bit later on. We'll also check in with Jessica Yellin. She in Des Moines. She is covering the Democrats, a little bit later on this hour -- Alina.

CHO: Thanks, John. Home for the holidays, a look at what President Bush has planned for his Christmas break, that's ahead.

And some scary moments for a group of joggers in Alaska. A pack of wolves sneaks up without warning and circles them. How the women got away, and the dog that was hurt, that's next on AMERICAN MORNING. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Welcome back to the most news in the morning. "Quick Hits" now. President Bush and first lady Laura Bush are spending the holiday at Camp David. They'll spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there, then they'll head to the so-called western White House, that would be in Crawford, Texas, returning to the real White House on the first of the year.

Some frightening moments for joggers in Alaska as a pack of wolves surrounds them and attacks. The pack circled three women and their dogs last Thursday near Anchorage. The women's pepper spray apparently had little effect. The pack got within feet of the women and injured one of their dogs. The dog is OK though. And one victim describes the harrowing ordeal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was rainbowing my pepper spray, and they fell back a little bit but as soon as we would turn our backs to try to go, they would run up on us, and then we would turn around and start screaming again and I would spray my pepper spray.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We just kept going and they're so big and so many and they started howling, and we thought they were circling us, and it got us really panicked but we just kept screaming.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: Fish and game officials say the same pack of wolves may have actually killed a dog hours earlier. Wildlife experts say the wolves may have learned that dogs are easier prey than wildlife in the woods.

ROBERTS: You can just imagine how terrifying that would be.

CHO: No kidding.

ROBERTS: Well, more people are having trouble keeping up with their credit card payments. A study out today by the Associated Press says delinquent accounts and defaults are up by double digits over last year. And it is expected to get worse after the holidays. And that brings us to this morning's "Quick Vote" question: Higher gas prices, other economic pressures that you're facing, what did you spend this holiday season, more, less, or the same amount as in years' past? Cast your vote at cnn.com. We'll have the first tally of votes later on this hour.

Just after Thanksgiving we did this vote. Most people predicted that they were going to spend less, so we'll see if that actually happened.

And here's something you can do if the recycling is piling up. It's our "Hot Shot" of the morning. A man in Lithuania is building a house out of empty glass bottles. It has taken so far 10 years and 20,000 bottles. He's almost finished but he's thirsty for more. He may even build an extension. There's a similar house to that in Nevada, by the way..

CHO: Gives new meaning to the term glass house.

ROBERTS: Don't be throwing any stones. And if you've got a "Hot Shot," send it to us. The address is amhotshots@cnn.com. Be sure to include your name, where you're from, a little bit about the picture or video, and one more thing, make sure that the image is yours, please, and not someone else's.

CHO: Well, it's just one day until Christmas and this year, more tourists are expected to be in Jerusalem. You're looking live there, but why are merchants in the holy city still worried? We'll have a live report from Bethlehem coming up. And Saudi Arabia announces the break-up of a major terrorist plot. We'll have that story and the day's other headlines when AMERICAN MORNING returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: That's a live look inside La Guardia Airport this morning. Doesn't look so bad. Line seems to be moving, and travelers getting over to grandma's house, or trying to at least, 65 million people going to grandmother's house this holiday season.

ROBERTS: That's up from last year too, isn't it?

CHO: Up a little bit over last year, yes. Of course, the majority will be driving, but plenty of people in the airports.

ROBERTS: You know, even with gas prices as they are, still lots of people traveling.

CHO: That's right. And by the way, 38 and clear in New York, going up to 47 and sunny. So that is good news for us here in New York. Good morning, everybody. Welcome back. It's Monday, December 24th, Christmas Eve. I'm Alina Cho. Kiran has the morning off.

ROBERTS: And good morning to you. I'm John Roberts. Thanks for being with us. We're watching the madness at the airports this Christmas Eve. It could be a dark, cold and lonely Christmas, potentially for millions of people. A huge winter storm has knocked out power and put roadways and runways on ice from the Great Plains all the way up to the Great Lakes.

Thousands of flyers were grounded over the weekend. They may not get out today either with major backlogs expected at airports across the country, 300 flights were canceled at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago alone. Ice and whiteout conditions being blamed for killing 11 people, mostly on the roads.

The conditions caused several deadly pile-ups, including one that shut down I-70 near Topeka, Kansas. The highway patrol says one person was killed in a 32-car pile-up. The 40-mile stretch of the interstate was closed for much of the day on Sunday. Even the military was forced into action. Troops from Fort Riley were on their way to catch a plane home when their bus joined the wreck.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUSAN BASSETT, AIR FORCE NURSE: I saw the accident start, but the next thing I knew was the big 18-wheeler that came crashing through. That was horrific.

The bus kept getting hit. The bus got hit between 20 and 30 times, and so we were just rocking and rocking and rocking with every hit.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROBERTS: The medical team was finally able to get out and round up people who were wandering around in a blizzard in a daze, many of them. The troops helped everyone from a 6-month-old baby to an elderly man.

(WEATHER REPORT)

CHO: New this morning, he used his dead cousin's identity to get a job as a police officer. Now he has been deported back to Mexico. His name is Oscar Ayala Cornejo (ph), he arrived at Guadalajara Airport yesterday. He had moved to Milwaukee back in 1992 as an illegal immigrant and used the ID to become an officer in 2004. Acting on a tip, police arrested him last May. Ayala Cornejo agreed to the deportation as part of a plea deal, but he says he has no regrets. He says being a police officer was his dream job and he now plans to study computer engineering.

Police in Scottsdale, Arizona, say they will now ask every suspect they arrest for proof of citizenship they'll turn over illegal immigrants to federal authorities. Now they began doing it after an illegal immigrant killed a Phoenix police officer. Scottsdale police had picked the man up the year before the killing on a misdemeanor charge but eventually let him go, they didn't know he was here illegally and had even been deported twice. The Scottsdale police say asking for proof of citizenship isn't profiling because they do it with every suspect -- John.

ROBERTS: Well, Saudi Arabia is announcing today that it has broken up a major terrorist plot aimed at the Hajj, the annual holy pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca. Officials say they arrested 28 people, 27 of them Saudis, they would only say that the suspects were plotting acts to disrupt the Hajj. At least 2.5 million Muslims came to Saudi Arabia for this year's event.

CHO: Happening right now, the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem with a reception for the holy city's archbishop in Manger Square. Later this morning, international choirs and musician will perform in the square. This year about 65,000 tourists are expected to come to Bethlehem, now that is a big increase over last year, but some merchants are worried that the tourists won't be spending any money. Ben Wedeman live in Bethlehem this morning with more on what may be the reason for that.

So, Ben, what is the reason?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alina, first of all, I hope you can hear me over this noise. There's a lot of Palestinian marching bands beneath me in Manger Square. It's a fairly festive atmosphere, far more festive as you mentioned than in recent years, twice as many tourists in this city than experienced in the year before.

But as you mentioned, yes, one of the problems the merchants say is that the buses full of tourists come to Bethlehem, but by and large, they come simply to go to the Church of the Nativity and leave quickly thereafter. The feeling is -- among many is that for one thing, the security wall that Israel built around Bethlehem is a little intimidating, and for another, that this square behind me, Manger Square, has been the scene of fighting in the very recent past.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WEDEMAN (voice-over): Bethlehem lies still this year, unlike years not long past, when the second Palestinian uprising was raging. As the memory of violence fades, tourists are beginning to venture back to Bethlehem.

JOAN SCHAFER-TIPMORE, TOURIST FROM INDIANA: We felt like maybe it was just time, that things maybe had settled more, and that we would not encounter anti-American feelings.

JANE MCCAFERY, TOURIST FROM CONNECTICUT: The feeling is when people know that we're coming, it must be very dangerous and we say, no, we don't feel any danger here. We're happy to be here.

WEDEMAN: And Bethlehem's residents are happy, too.

HATIM MABROUK, VENDOR: If there is no tourist there is no job, so we hope tourist come again and visit us.

WEDEMAN: Most come to the Church of the Nativity, the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, to take a few snapshots, then leave.

It's past noon and John Shaheen has yet to make his first sale. He worries Bethlehem's recent past has made tourists wary of wandering.

JOHN SHAHEEN, BETHLEHEM STORE OWNER: It's more safety than a city like in London, because we don't have big crime. We don't have crime. We don't have drug dealers. You know, we don't have prostitutes.

WEDEMAN: His neighbor, Adnan, says it doesn't help that the town is surrounded on three sides by a towering green concrete wall, built by Israel to stop Palestinian suicide bombers.

ADNAN SUBH, BETHLEHEM STORE OWNER: Because of the wall, you see the wall around the city, many tourists fear to come to the city, they think they're going to Falluja, Iraq, not to Bethlehem.

WEDEMAN: And this is a town eager to put the past behind and have a merry and profitable Christmas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WEDEMAN: And, Alina, it is going to be pretty noisy here until midnight, when they're going to be having midnight Mass and then hopefully it will be a silent night -- Alina.

CHO: All right. Well put, Ben Wedeman, live for us in Bethlehem this morning. Ben, thank you -- John. ROBERTS: Coming up now on 39 minutes after the hour. Hoping and praying for Youssif this holiday season. You may know his story by now. The young Iraqi boy was playing outside when masked men doused him in gasoline and set him on fire. His journey from Baghdad to Los Angeles was made possible by your compassion and generosity. CNN viewers have made 13,000 donations and now Youssif is recovering from critical surgery to repair his smile.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta has got an update on his inspiring recovery and a preview of his special coming up later on AMERICAN MORNING.

And be sure to catch Sanjay's special "Rescuing Youssif." It premieres tonight, 10:00 Eastern and airs again Christmas Day at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

CHO: Looking forward to that. Meanwhile, coming up, a plane is forced to make an emergency landing in Nebraska after someone makes a fake bomb threat. You won't believe the reason why that person did it. We will tell you coming.

And Senator Chris Dodd makes a claim that none of the other presidential candidates can make. And he is hoping that will help him win Iowa, even though he is polling in the single digits, we'll go live to Iowa, that is next on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING. An airliner makes an emergency landing after a person who missed the flight allegedly made a bomb threat, that's according to airline officials. Not a smart person. The Southwest Airlines jet was headed from Las Vegas to Connecticut when it had to land in Omaha Saturday night. Passengers had to wait three hours while the plane was searched. Imagine that as you're heading to grandmother's house. Nothing was found and no information yet about the person who made the threat -- John.

ROBERTS: Democratic Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd is fighting hard in Iowa, spending his holiday there. Dodd is the only presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, out campaigning today. CNN's Jessica Yellin is following the Dodd campaign, she is live from Des Moines this morning.

And he's staying there, Jessica, because he lives there, yes?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That is right, John. You know Senator Chris Dodd, he has such a long history of accomplishments in the U.S. Senate. He's largely responsible for making sure that all Americans can take family and medical leave but now he wants to be president, and he is such a long shot in this state and it's such a challenge for him to break out of the pack, that he has actually moved his entire family, wife and kids, to Des Moines.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): Stockings from Connecticut, an improvised tree, a home-made creche from a supporter. Senator Chris Dodd and his family are making Des Moines their home away from home for the holidays.

CHRIS DODD (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I get to see my family. I mean, this is (INAUDIBLE) that was the motivation behind this.

YELLIN: Six-year-old Grace is in a local kindergarten. And 2 1/2-year-old Christina is a big fan of the Des Moines Science Center.

JACKIE DODD, SEN. DODD'S WIFE: And you have human grossology (ph) there right now, and they've been having fun with the body.

YELLIN: The five-term U.S. senator barely ranks in the latest CNN poll of Iowa, but insists the media is wrong about this race.

DODD: Four years ago, if polling had dictated what would have happened, then Howard Dean should have won this race hands down.

YELLIN: Dodd's campaign message? After nearly 27 years in the Senate, he has got a track record of making good on promises and is ready to be president.

DODD: This may be the only job in America where prior references aren't required. You wouldn't remodel your bathroom without asking a contractor if he had ever done it before.

J. DODD: You want to be a change agent, actually get something done. That's what a change agent is.

YELLIN: He's not shy about criticizing his Democratic opponents.

DODD: Look, again, I think people are so sick of the bickering and this idea, turn up the heat, fire up the crowd, I'll fight harder than anybody. Are there any adults running here?

YELLIN: And questions whether the frontrunners could beat a Republican.

DODD: And there's a lot of concern, candidly, about the so- called top tier candidates doing that.

J. DODD: She wants a parrot, a Webkinz, that is another animal.

YELLIN: But this week, the Dodd family has some pressing concerns of its own. Dad left a sign for Santa at the family's home in Connecticut and here in Des Moines. And he is hoping for a little holiday magic himself.

DODD: There's a chance to come out of here and all of a sudden be a new story here on January 4th. And I think we have got a shot at being that new story.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now, John, I asked him if he doesn't get the nomination, would he accept an offer to be vice president. And he said, you know, you can't say no to those things. But you know, most candidates at this stage do say no to such things. He said you just can't rule that out -- John.

ROBERTS: Yes, most candidates we hear from, Jessica, say, well, let's not talk about who I would be the running mate for, let's talk about who would be my running mate. Chris Dodd, even though he's living there in Iowa, I take it that as of the 4th of January, he won't be?

YELLIN: That's right. He plans to go on to New Hampshire. He hopes, as he says, he'll be a new story and next Democratic Mike Huckabee surge. And he'll wage a fight in New Hampshire, he says.

ROBERTS: Interesting piece. Jessica Yellin for us this morning in Des Moines. Jessica, thanks -- Alina.

CHO: All right. Thanks, John.

A tragic Christmas in Florida where a fire tears through a church. Despite the video of fierce flames, officials say the damage actually could have been worse. We'll have that story coming up.

And why does the government care about how you walk, how you talk, even the shape of your earlobes? We'll have details on a surprising new plan from the FBI, that's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Welcome back to the most news in the morning. The government taking a big new step, looking to build a huge database of people's physical characteristics. The FBI is taking on a billion- dollar project to gather fingerprints, palm patterns, even digital pictures of faces, eventually it could expand to include iris patterns, face-shaped patterns, scars, even information about how you walk and talk. It's called biometrics and it could change the face of law enforcement but it is also causing a lot of controversy. AMERICAN MORNING's legal contributor Sunny Hostin joins us now.

So we're talking about some incredible stuff like tracking the shape of your earlobes. So what is the FBI's goal in doing all of this?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the goal is to have a comprehensive database to track terror suspects, criminals, that sort of thing. I think it's a wonderful goal. We do want to sort of have that centralized database, but you have to be very careful, because what if the wrong person is in that database? And that is something that can follow you forever.

Someone said -- it was reported, said, if your credit card is stolen you can get another credit card, if your eyeball print is stolen, you can't get another eyeball. And I think therein lies the problem here.

CHO: And that's right, you know, and it is going to be a while before this actually all comes into play, they're calling it next generation biometrics. Even the name is complicated. But for those of us who aren't on terror watch lists like the two of us... HOSTIN: Hopefully.

CHO: Yes, as far as we know. As far as we know, do we need to be concerned about this kind of thing?

HOSTIN: You know, I think so. I really think so. You know, the ACLU and other groups are saying Big Brother is watching, but you do have to be careful. And it's interesting because a lot of this information is already in a database. I'm already in a database, having been a federal prosecutor and having security clearance. I'm already in the database.

What the FBI wants to do is take that information and keep it and that's the problem. And generally you can get access to it and ask for information that's on you, but in this situation you may not be able to get that information. So I think everyone does have to be careful.

CHO: All right. Legal contributor Sunny Hostin, we thank you for joining us. And we'll talk to you a bit later on in the show.

HOSTIN: Thank you.

CHO: Sunny, thanks.

ROBERTS: And hopefully you're not on the terror watch list.

HOSTIN: We don't know.

ROBERTS: Tracking, not Santa but baby Jesus. "Quick Hits" now, in Bal Harbor, Florida, a statue of baby Jesus has been equipped with a GPS device, they're trying to prevent someone from running off with it. You see a previous statue was stolen even though it was bolted down. They also put Plexiglas in front of the display and plan to outfit Mary and Joseph with GPS devices as well. LoJack on your nativity scene there.

And a man in Washington State has nailed Santa to the cross, literally. Art Conrad (ph) of Bremerton is protesting the commercialism of Christmas by crucifying Santa. Some of his neighbors are offended but others apparently just laughed it all off.

A man in Indiana a man bought himself a brand new truck for Christmas. But wait until you see how he paid for it.

And a minivan careens into a Chicago television studio as the news is on the air. More of the aftermath and what witnesses are saying about the crash ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Take a look at these pictures here in Florida. A fire leaves part of a Baptist church in ruins. More than 70 firefighters battled thick smoke and flames at the Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville. The fire broke out just before 5:00 a.m. and was under control about an hour later. Despite the fierce flames that you see here, officials say only the sanctuary was destroyed. The gym was spared, and thankfully, no injuries to report. The cause of the fire still under investigation -- John.

ROBERTS: If you are one of the millions of people who pile up loose change around the house, stay with us, because in a minute or two, we're going to show you just how valuable those coins could be. You would be very surprised to hear about this. But right now, Jim Ellis of Business Week magazine, "Minding Your Business" in for Ali Velshi today, checking on the economic outlook for the New Year.

Jim, and a lot of people are wondering, are we headed for a recession?

JIM ELLIS, BUSINESS WEEK: Well, luckily we're not, unfortunately, it is going to feel that way to a lot of people, simply because a lot of parts of the economy that will do well in 2008 are the kinds of -- are pieces of the economy where a lot of people don't work. I mean, basically things that export a lot, metal vending companies like Caterpillar, or companies like John Deere or Boeing are going to do quite well because the dollar is extremely cheap right now, which makes it very easy for foreigners to buy our goods and services.

Unfortunately for most of us, we work in businesses that don't do that.

ROBERTS: So what does it mean for the average person?

ELLIS: Well, the average person is going to find 2008 to be a year when he has a lot less power in the workplace. Unemployment is probably going to rise, probably up to about 5.1 percent, that is compared to...

ROBERTS: That is pretty dramatic.

ELLIS: That is a dramatic increase from about 4.7 percent now. Now a lot of that is simply because demand for U.S. goods and services domestically is going to drop and basically growth is going to slow to about 2 percent, that's down from about 2.7, but it's still not a recession, it's just going to feel like one.

ROBERTS: You mentioned what you think are going to be some of the bright spots in the economy for 2008.

ELLIS: Yes, the bright spots are definitely going to be parts of the economy that service foreign markets. The big one will be metal vending companies. The bad things will be housing, which is in the toilet. We're going to talk about that later today, but also anything that doesn't have a real sort of reason for being right now, if you're not a must-have commodity, you're not going to do well in 2008.

ROBERTS: Just wondering, you know, the trade deficit particularly with China has been a real problem, with the lower level of the dollar, might we make some headway at least against some of those trade deficits? ELLIS: We'll definitely make some headway with trade deficit. The problem though is that because oil is priced in dollars, and the Middle East sheikhs are starting to worry now that dollars aren't worth much, we're going to have a hard time getting oil prices down. That is going to be much more of an issue.

ROBERTS: Well, it won't be as bad as if they decided to trade in euros as opposed to dollars, though. Jim Ellis, thanks, and we'll see you back in just a little while to talk about that housing market.

Brings to us this morning's "Quick Vote" question. With higher gasoline prices, other economic pressures on you, what did you spend this holiday season, more, less or the same amount as in years' past? Cast your vote at cnn.com/am. Right now, 6 percent of you say you spent more and you are in the minority; 74 percent said you spent less; 21 percent, the same. We'll continue to tally your votes throughout the morning. Go on there again, cnn.com/am, click on the "Quick Vote," tell us what you spent this year.

CHO: I think I'm in that 6 percent.

ROBERTS: Yes, me, too.

CHO: I spent more.

ROBERTS: Well, talk about paying with exact change. A man in Indiana just bought a brand new pickup truck with his spare change. Paul Brant (ph) saved his pennies, his nickels, and quarters in coffee cans, water jugs and piggy banks, and then hauled all of that change, $25,000 worth, into the local dealer to help pay for the pickup. And this is not the first time that he has done it. Back in 1994, he helped pay for a car and a truck worth $35,000. He did it in quarters. So you can imagine, in 13 years this guy saved up enough spare change -- enough loose change to buy another truck.

CHO: I need to do a little bit more of that.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: ... those pennies and the dollars will look after themselves.

CHO: That's right. A lot ahead. Stay with us. The next hour of AMERICAN MORNING starts right now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS (voice-over): Holiday havoc.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was making a lane change and the next thing you know we were in the ditch.

ROBERTS: Highways cut off, airports closed and thousands without power. The latest on a deadly winter storm this morning. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com