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Obama, McCain Trade Shots Over Economy; McCain's New Approach

Aired July 7, 2008 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, John McCain, Barack Obama trading shots over the economy, and shifting strategies, McCain trying to relaunch his campaign with a new staff and a new approach on the trail. The question is, is it going to be enough for McCain to regain his mojo?
Barack Obama, meantime, getting heat from some of his supporters for seemingly moving to the center on some key issues. Is he tacking right or simply emphasizing more centrist positions? Tonight, the facts.

Also ahead, for the first time since their release as hostages, three Americans speaking out, blasting the rebels who captured them and talking about what life has been like for the past five years.

And, later, big Bertha, this year's first hurricane growing stronger. Now it is a powerful Category 3 storm. Where is it heading? The latest forecast tonight.

We begin with the strategic shifts on the campaign trail, both candidates today selling their economic plans and taking shots at each other's.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Obama's tax increases will hurt the economy even more, and destroy jobs across this country. If you are one of the 23 million small business owners in America who files as an individual rate payer, Senator Obama is going to raise your tax rates.


COOPER: That was John McCain in Denver today. Here's how Barack Obama responded later.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that, during his statements, he also was making some suggestions that my plan would raise taxes on the middle class. That is absolutely not the case. And everybody who has looked at it has said that, in fact, my tax cuts are three times more likely to go to the middle class than John McCain's.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: So, that was the public face of the campaign today, the public message. But, behind the scenes, there are strategy shifts -- today, the McCain camp launch -- or re-launching -- an effort to reenergize their campaign and shore up its organization. The question is, will it work?

CNN's Jessica Yellin has the "Raw Politics."


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's being billed as the new and improved John McCain, a sure-footed candidate working to reconnect with voters and recapture the magic that him a political superstar. At first blush, the transformation may be hard to detect.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have a plan to grow this economy, create more and better jobs, and get America moving again.

YELLIN: OK, so, the difference might be subtle, but the campaign team is hailing a few improvements. It appointed a Bush veteran to run McCain's daily operations. Then it named Rudy Giuliani's former campaign manager as political director. And, today, the candidate is on message, talking about Americans' top concern, the economy.

MCCAIN: The choice in this election is stark and simple. Senator Obama will raise your taxes. I won't.

YELLIN: Remember that ghoulish green? It's history. In its place, a people-friendly forum. And those awkward Teleprompter-guided speeches? They have been canned in favor of town hall Q&A sessions, which produce can't-make-that-up moments with voters, like this woman.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You tax us when we eat. You tax us when we sleep. You tax us every which way. Get off of my back.


YELLIN: The McCain team is touting these cosmetic changes and management improvements, like better coordination with organizers at the local level, as signs of a newly revitalized campaign.

But a new backdrop doesn't give the candidate new mojo. And this political observer sees deeper problems.

STUART ROTHENBERG, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT": He started to compromise his own brand. In this year, when the Republican brand is so damaged, having a nominee like McCain, with a maverick reputation, is absolutely crucial. And to the extent that he loses that reputation, or is seen as a cookie-cutter Republican, just a George Bush Republican, then his campaign is in trouble, and his party is in trouble.

YELLIN: McCain was the anti-Republican Republican, a guy who broke with party orthodoxy, opposing Bush's tax cuts, opposing offshore drilling, and bucking the party line on immigration reform. Now he's mouthing standard Republican talking points on all these issues, one reason Obama is branding him the next George Bush.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I often say that John McCain is running to serve out George Bush's third term. But that's not fair to George Bush.


YELLIN: But, if there's one thing McCain excels at, it's coming back from behind. Today, he showed glimmers of that iconoclast, criticizing the Bush administration for excessive spending.

MCCAIN: Government has grown by 60 percent in the last eight years, 60 percent. That's simply inexcusable.

YELLIN: But only for a moment, and then it was onto the awkward pre-makeover John McCain.

MCCAIN: If you believe you should pay more taxes, I'm the wrong candidate for you. Senator Obama is your man.


YELLIN: Sometimes, it's all in the delivery. And, for John McCain, practice time is running out.


COOPER: Jessica, if Stu Rothenberg in your story was right, that McCain appears as just another Republican, that he's somehow sullying his brand, how did that happen? I mean, what went wrong?

YELLIN: Well, first, he has to broaden out his message to reach more voters, Anderson.

That's what candidates do when they move from the primaries to the general. But you're right. It poses risks for McCain because it threatens to water down that maverick brand.

The thing that's important to remember is McCain's personal history. Here's a guy who was defeated in 2000 in a bitter contest with George Bush, but, four years later, he made nice with Bush and with the party establishment. And that helped him become the nominee this year.

So, experience has shown McCain that mixing a little bit of the maverick with a little bit of toeing the party line works for him. He just has to find the right mix. And he's not there yet.

COOPER: All right. Jessica Yellin, thanks.

Barack Obama had to deliver his economic speech today by telephone to about 200 people in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was supposed to be there in person. His plane was forced to make an unscheduled landing in Saint Louis after an emergency slide deployed in flight inside the plane.

We also learned today that Obama has decided to give his acceptance speech at next month's convention Mile High Stadium, which has 75,000 seats, rather than the 20,000-seat hall where the convention hall is actually taking place.

Now, all this comes at a time when Obama is drawing fire from some within his own party for what they see as a move to the political center.

Here's 360's Joe Johns.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's not exactly the change of direction Obama's plane took in the Midwest today, but political observers say the presumptive Democratic nominee is detouring away from the liberal corner and inching toward the center of American politics. He denies any change of direction and says he doesn't understand what the fuss is about.

OBAMA: You know, I don't. What happens is, I get tagged as being on the left, and when I simply describe what have been my positions consistently, then so many people act surprised.

JOHNS: But people who catch this stuff closely, like Democratic pollster Peter Hart, know this general election two-step when they see it, because they have seen it before.

PETER HART, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: Whether it's coming from the left or the right, it is the center that everybody runs to.

JOHNS: So, what's the evidence? Let's start with the most current controversy which has fired up the blogosphere and flooded the Obama for president Web site with criticism from his own supporters. The Senate is taking up a bill that would give telephone companies a free pass from lawsuits for allowing government eavesdropping without court orders.

Obama, who first said he opposed it, now supports what he says is a better version of the bill.

OBAMA: I have consistently said that the underlying program was one that was necessary and important.

JOHNS: Take the issue of abortion. Obama broke away from pro- abortion-rights dogma by saying mental distress of the mother shouldn't be an excuse for late-term abortion, though he still supports abortion rights.

Another example, Obama's support of faith-based initiatives. Some say that's taking a page from President Bush's playbook. And Obama holding a second news conference on the same day last week to deny John McCain's charges that he flip-flopped when he seemed to back off his firm pledge to get out of Iraq in 16 months. NANCY PFOTENHAUER, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN POLICY ADVISER: Senator Obama continuing to dance and, if you will, kind of backpedal on his positions, that he's revealing himself to not be any type of new politician or a new agent of change, but really way too much like the typical politician.

JOHNS (on camera): OK, so, if Obama is shifting positions, what possibly could be the payoff? Those independent votes in the middle could make the difference between spending a few more years in the Senate and marching up Pennsylvania Avenue as the new president in late January.

(voice-over): And don't think for a minute that McCain somehow has a lock on independent voters, says pollster Peter Hart.

HART: The independent voters are a jump ball. Both candidates have an equal chance.

JOHNS: The concern for Obama, though, is appearing inconsistent. So, he has to be careful. So far, he has avoided anything like John Kerry's famous statement that he was for the war before he was against it. But the McCain camp is watching.

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: Well, we're digging deeper on the strategy shifts with CNN senior political analyst and former presidential adviser David Gergen, also Tony Perkins, author and the president of the Family Research Council, and Jennifer Palmieri of the Center For American Progress and an eight-year veteran of the Clinton White House.

David, is Obama shifting center. And, if so, is that the smart move to do?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, he's clearly shifting center.

And I think why it's stirred up so much fuss is that because people don't know him very well yet. He's not a -- he hasn't been around for 25 years. And, so, when he shifts, it's very, very noticeable to the public. And the public isn't quite sure anymore who he is.

And I think that's one of the things he's fighting. He needed to get more to the center because he was so easily portrayed as being the most liberal member of the United States Senate.

That was going -- they were going to hang that around his neck in the fall campaign. And he's trying to counter that before they get a chance to do it. But he's paying a price. And the other thing, Anderson, that's changed in American politics is, of course, the blogosphere.

You know, the fuss gets stirred up immediately in the blogosphere. We don't wait for two or three weeks for public reaction to start rolling in.

COOPER: Jennifer, Frank Rich in "The Times" said -- quote -- "For all the hyperventilation on the left about Mr. Obama's rush to the center, some warranted, some not, what's more alarming is how small-bore and defensive his campaign has become."

AS much as some on the left may complain about this move to the center, does it matter? Where else are they going to go?

PALMIERI: Well, I think that's a good point.

And I think that, you know, the changes that you have seen in policy or the move to the center on death penalty, on wiretapping, that's about inoculating himself from attacks from the right. That's not about trying to reach new voters.

And I think that -- or trying to reach out to independents, as much as it's trying to inoculate himself. And I think that you see, you know, yes, the people on the blogosphere gave him a hard time on wiretapping. But, you know, you saw in the piece earlier, it says please -- please, Senator Obama, please vote no.

They -- I think that they're showing that they are -- that we have seen that -- that the left is willing to give Obama a little more latitude than they might -- than you might have thought on this, because they really want to win. And I think what he showed is: I am no Michael Dukakis. I'm not going to get tripped -- I'm not going to get tripped up by sort of side issues that have -- that have haunted other Democratic campaigns.

COOPER: I want to bring in Tony Perkins for a moment, but we have to take a short break, Tony. We will do this on the other side of the break. And we will have more on some other topics, including John McCain's shift in strategies from our panel.

You can join in the conversation with me right now during the commercial break. Go to our new Web site, We're live- blogging throughout the show. Also, we are going to show you the pictures of their final moments as hostages and now the celebration.

And, today, the three Americans rescued from guerrillas in Colombia speaking out about the hell they went through. You will hear from them ahead.

Plus, tracking Bertha, the first hurricane of the season, now a Cat 3 storm, where is it headed? And is it going to hit us soon? We will have the latest.

And the wife of Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez filing for divorce, setting off a wave of speculation. Did Madonna and her mystical religion, Kaballah, contribute to the breakup? We will try to separate the facts from the fiction -- tonight on 360.


COOPER: We're digging deeper on the shifting campaign strategies of Barack Obama and John McCain.

Joining me again, CNN political analyst and former presidential adviser David Gergen, also Tony Perkins, author and president of the Family Research Council, and Jennifer Palmieri of the Center For American progress and an eight-year veteran of the Clinton White House.

Tony, tomorrow, an anti-abortion group called the Christian Defense Coalition is launching a new campaign, calling Obama the abortion president.

Now, they're going to have this poster, a picture of him saying, "I want you to pay for abortions."

Are conservatives hoping to use Obama's supposed move to the center, painting him as someone trying to hide his true liberal feelings?

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: Well, I think what's happening now is that his faith talk is being examined in terms of his policy walk.

Where does he stand on these issues? And I think it's where he got in trouble last week, when he's been talking, using faith language and making some inroads there.

But when it comes to his policies, people ask him, all right, on this abortion issue, where do you stand? That's where he tried to -- I think tried to move a little to the middle, say, well, you know, mental health should not be a reason for abortion.

And, so, he is very vulnerable on that issue, because that, as we talked about last week, is an issue in which a lot of evangelical, social conservatives still rank very high in their priorities in terms of who they're going to support, whether or not he's pro-life.

COOPER: David, I guess by moving to the center, he risks the Republican saying, well, look, he will do anything, he will say anything to get elected.

Does that, though, lesson the risk of being painted as a hard- core liberal?

GERGEN: I think his greatest risk would be if the hard left coalesced with the -- with the Clinton disgruntled voters and sort of sat out the election.

I don't think that's going to happen at this point. But if he were to continue to make moves that alienated the left base, he could run into that problem.

I frankly think that, overall, he's better off being a center- right candidate -- I mean a center-left candidate than a left candidate. I think that's where elections tend to be won. And the electorate right now sees itself as center-right, and sees McCain as center-right. They will go for a center-left candidate, given how unhappy they are with the Bush administration. But I'm not sure they would go for a hard-left candidate.

COOPER: Tony, what is John McCain doing wrong?

PERKINS: Well, I think that now, today, he made a speech on the economy and his economic policy, which is a stark contrast with Barack Obama.

This is a territory that he can talk about, feels comfortable about. But, you know, for the really last month-and-a-half, Barack Obama has been talking about faith issues, faith-based program. He's been talking about issues that historically have been for the Republicans. And John McCain has not been there.

I think what David said that is a risk for Barack Obama likewise is a risk for John McCain, that the right, those hard-core supporters that traditionally vote Republican, you know, may be disenfranchised or just not really happy with what's happening with John McCain, and may not show up either.


PERKINS: So, I think both of those candidates have a real challenge in reaching their bases.

COOPER: Jennifer, Bill Kristol wrote about the frustration around the McCain campaign.

He wrote -- quote -- that McCain -- quote -- "knows that his three-month general head-start was largely frittered away. He understands that his campaign has failed to develop an overarching message. Above all, McCain is painfully aware that he's being diminished by his own campaign."


I think that he has -- what's really difficult for what McCain has to do is that he has to show that, A, he gets it in terms of how bad the economy really is and how much of a struggle it is for most families, and, then, B, he has to show -- he can't just show that he -- that he gets that.

He has to show that there's something that's dramatically different that he would do as president on the economy that's different than what Bush has done. And he's just not been able to do that.

On the first point, if your goal was to show that you're going to be a president just like George Bush and send jobs overseas, then going to Bogota and Mexico last week to do economic message events probably made a lot of sense. I don't think that's what John McCain wants to try to convey to voters.

And, then, secondly, he comes back to the United States and does his jobs first tour, but he continues the same policies. There's nothing dramatically different about what he has proposed on the economy than what Bush has done.

COOPER: You know, David, it's interesting. I read this article over the weekend in "The Times" about John McCain has a hard time reading a Teleprompter.

Shouldn't he be making that into a plus? Who cares if the guy read a Teleprompter or not. Shouldn't he be the guy who says, you know what, I'm awkward, I don't do very well in front of a Teleprompter, but you know what, I'm a real person? It seems like he's -- is his campaign trying to make him into something he is not?


GERGEN: There is a lot of that.

And I think that the dilemma they face is that they -- you know, the smart people want to let McCain be McCain, let him do what is authentic, and let him be at his best without a Teleprompter.

And the problem is, then he has a hard time disciplining himself to stay on message of the day. And he's all over the lot. And they're not getting a consistent message out.

But the larger issue, I think, for John McCain right now, Anderson, is simply this. He is running as the national security candidate. And, suddenly, the ground has shifted under his feet as the economy has fallen apart. And now this has become an election about the economy, a subject in which he has confessed he doesn't know much.

So, he's now -- I think the symbolic sort of depth was really illustrated last week, when he essentially got lost in South America. Now he's coming back and trying to get back on message. And the challenge now is, will he finally gain traction? We don't know yet.

COOPER: Tony, a final thought from you?

PERKINS: Well, I think that he is on a strong message when he gets to the economy, clear contrast between him and Barack Obama. National security is a strong point for him.

But I Salt will say, Barack Obama is -- is taking away the fear that the McCain camp hopes that strong social conservatives have of Barack Obama, simply because he's using the language. The longer the campaign goes on, though, the more people have the opportunity to see where those policy -- or whether the policy positions line up with his faith talk. That's where I think Barack Obama has the greatest risk.

COOPER: Tony Perkins, David Gergen, Jennifer Palmieri, appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.

Still ahead, celebrating freedom. We take you inside the rescue of three Americans and 12 others in the jungles of Colombia -- a new tape released this weekend. And, today, we finally heard from the Americans -- what they told the world about their time as hostages and what kept them alive for more than five years. You will hear it for yourself.

And we're trucking this, a close eye on Hurricane Bertha, the first hurricane of the season, a Cat 3 storm now. It grew today. We will tell you where it's headed and whether it will hit land.

And the wife of Major League Baseball star Alex Rodriguez says her husband was brainwashed by a mystical religion. Where Madonna fits into the whole story, and why she wants a divorce -- ahead on 360.


COOPER: Thumbs up and smiles from one of the hostages rescued from FARC rebels in Colombia last week. The amazing rescue video in a 360 dispatch is coming up.

But, first, Randi Kaye joins us with a 360 bulletin with some of the other stories we're following -- Randi.


Israel has signed a prisoner release deal with Hezbollah. At issue for Israel, the fate of two soldiers whose kidnapping in 2006 triggered a 34-day war. The men are believed to be dead. And Israel is prepared to release a still unspecified number of prisoners to Hezbollah.

Off the coast of Alaska, a cruise ship stranded for nine hours after it ran aground when traveling very slowly. The Coast Guard says the ship was not damaged, and no injuries were reported. The ship is back floating tonight, thanks to some high tides.

And a broken nose cone on a Northwest Airlines flight, the plane never made it to Minneapolis. A northwest spokesman says the incident is under investigation, but that birds were not to blame, because the mishap occurred at 18,000 feet.

COOPER: I have never seen that before.

Randi, thanks.

Here's tonight's "Beat 360" photo: a Mexican farmer staging a half-naked protest to get land returned to them that was seized in the early '90s. They're wearing a photograph of a Mexican politician at the center of the dispute.

Our staff winner tonight, kind of saucy, our winner is Ismael Estrada (ph): "Just two more blocks, then when we give them the whole enchilada."

KAYE: Oh, my...

(CROSSTALK) COOPER: And we have a special honorable mention for staffers Alana and Chuck: "Mexican health officials offer another tool in the abstinence arsenal: the Tito Puente prophylactic."

Pretty good.

KAYE: Did you contribute to that one?



COOPER: No, but I did push to get both of them on.

Think you can do better? Go to our new Web site, Click on the "Beat 360" link. Send us your entry. We will announce the winner at the end of the program tonight.

Up next: three Americans held hostage for more than five years in Colombia -- an amazing story -- speaking out today for the first time, lashing out at the rebels who kept them captive. You will hear from them tonight -- this as we are getting new video of their dramatic rescue. Karl Penhaul has that in a 360 dispatch from Colombia.

Also ahead, a criminal twist to the wildfires burning in California -- why one man is under arrest for protecting his own home -- when 360 continues.


COOPER: Finally free, smiles and hugs. This is a newly released video of the 15 hostages rescued from the jungles of Colombia, including three Americans. Here they are on the rescue chopper just moments after being told they are actually free.

Their captors had been tricked in a daring raid last Wednesday that went off apparently with flawless precision. The three Americans speaking out today about the cruelty they endured at the hands of this rebel group called FARC.

Here's one of the Americans, Marc Gonsalves.


MARC GONSALVES, FORMER HOSTAGE: The FARC are not a revolutionary group. They are not a revolutionary group. They are terrorists, terrorists with a capital T., bad people.

Their interests lie in drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping. They refuse to acknowledge all human rights. I have seen them hold a newborn baby in captivity, a baby that needed medical help, that was sick. They kept him there in the jungle.


COOPER: A brutal way to live for five years. They are back in the U.S. Tonight, we have the dramatic video of how it all went down.

Karl Penhaul has the 360 dispatch.


KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): FARC rebels toting assault rifles mount watch in a drug plantation in Eastern Colombia. The time on the video says 1:22 p.m. Fifteen of the rebels' most valuable hostages wait nearby, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors.

The rebels believe a helicopter that has just landed is a humanitarian mission to ferry their captives to another guerrilla camp. They have no idea this is the final phase of a daring operation by Colombian military intelligence months in the planning.

It's now 1:24, according to the video. Like the other hostages, American Keith Stansell is handcuffed, ready for the flight -- 1:27, Stansell utters the word "gringos," or Americans, and shows the plastic cuffs to the man he thinks is a bona fide cameraman.

Lieutenant Raymundo Malegon (ph), held hostage for 10 years, seems agitated.

"I'm Lieutenant Malegon (ph) of the glorious Colombian army, and I have been held in chains for 10 years," he says.

A minute later, the hostages walk the final yards to the waiting chopper. The audio is cut as we see Ingrid Betancourt preparing to board. She looks haggard after more than six years as a hostage.

A last shot of the guerrilla captors and minutes later, this. Pure joy. Betancourt is in tears. The hostages have just been told they are free.

At a press conference to show the dramatic video, military commanders described how secret agents were trained for weeks in acting techniques to pull off their role as aide workers. They flew into the rebel camp unarmed. Not a single shot was fired.

A source close to military intelligence with knowledge of this operation tells CNN the army was able to persuade three FARC couriers to switch sides. One of them gave bogus orders to rebel commanders to hand over the hostages.

(on camera) The full details of such secretive military operations are rarely revealed. But the key fact, 15 long-suffering hostages are now home free.

Karl Penhaul, CNN, Bogota.


COOPER: It's incredible to see that video. Marc Gonsalves wants the world to understand tonight that others are still suffering in chains and degradation. More than, in fact, 700 people are still FARC hostages. He hopes they will not be forgotten.

More now from Marc Gonsalves in his own words.


MARCH GONSALVES, FORMER HOSTAGE: There are people who right now, in this very moment, they're still there in the jungle being held hostage. In this exact moment, right now, they're being punished because we got rescued successfully.

I want you guys to imagine that. Right now, right now, they're wearing chains around their necks. They're going to get up early tomorrow morning. They're going to put a heavy backpack on their backs, and they're going to be forced to march with that chain on their neck while a guerrilla with an automatic weapon is holding the other end of his chain like a dog.

I want to send a message to the FARC. The FARC, you guys are terrorists. Don't tell us that that you're not terrorists. Show us that you're not terrorists. Let those other hostages come home.


COOPER: Up next, tracking Hurricane Bertha. Will the storm hit the U.S.? We'll track the latest.

Also, tonight, celebrity split. Superstar athlete Alex Rodriguez and supermodel Christie Brinkley, both in high-profile divorce battles. Their dirty laundry making headlines across America tonight.

And what does Kabbalah, if anything, have to do with the Rodriguez divorce? Madonna and her religion are being blamed for her A-Rod's divorce. We'll take an up-close look at this mystical faith when 360 continues.


COOPER: As you probably know, there's a huge divorce story out there involving mega-baseball star nicknamed A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez, who's linked to a woman you may have heard about also, Madonna. There are reports her faith, Kabbalah, may also somehow be tied up to A- Rod's marital trouble. We'll take an up-close look at the mystical religion coming up.

First, a look at high-profile world of celebrity breakups. Three-sixty's Gary Tuchman reports.


KIRK DOUGLAS, ACTOR: The yellow areas are mine. The red area is hers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This seems rational to you both?

DOUGLAS: I got more square footage.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Most marriages don't end as badly as the one depicted in "War of the Roses." In fact, good news. Divorce is down in the U.S.

Still, every year tens of thousands of Americans who said, "I do" will say, "I don't anymore." But only a handful will make headlines.

Enter Alex Rodriguez, A-Rod to his fans, the Yankees' superstar worth a quarter of a billion dollars, serving up home runs and now served with divorce papers from his wife, Cynthia. Claiming abandonment in her petition, she says their union is irretrievably broken because of the husband's extramarital affairs and other marital misconduct.


TUCHMAN: And one of the other women is rumored to be Madonna.

CARLOS DIAZ, "EXTRA" TV CORRESPONDENT: Madonna is never mentioned in the court papers specifically, but Cynthia's lawyer is telling the New York papers that basically Madonna was the straw that broke the camel's back.

TUCHMAN: The Material Girl emphatically denies any involvement with the baseball player. In a statement, her representatives tell CNN, "I know Alex Rodriguez through Guy Oseary, who managed both of us. I brought my kids to a Yankees game. I am not romantically involved in any way with Alex."

But the gossip isn't going away. Maybe Cynthia Rodriguez hopes something else will: a contract that may limit her access to his fortune. Can it be put aside?

JAMI FLOYD, ANCHOR, TRU-TV: It essentially is a prenuptial agreement. But, even though people think they're set in stone, they're not. Prenup or no prenup, child support is still on the table, which is huge in a case like this.

TUCHMAN: Child support is at the center of another celebrity breakup: Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook. This one is ugly.

Cook, a 49-year-old architect, admitted to having an affair with a teenage girl, paying $300,000 to his 18-year-old mistress in an effort to protect himself and his family from scandal. Tin emotional testimony, the former supermodel repeatedly broke down, crying as she described learning about the infidelity from the girl's father.

Given how sordid the details are, why would they want to take this case to court?

FLOYD: In these high-profile cases where people feel they have been publicly humiliated, and in fact, they have been, that they go all the way to court and really try and stick it to their husband, or in some cases, wife.

TUCHMAN: On a P.R. level, there are no winners when it comes to scandalous celebrity divorce. And in the case of A-Rod, who is yet to comment on the accusations around him, P.R. may not be his top priority.

DIAZ: This may hurt A-Rod's chance at endorsement deals in the future, but when you're making $250 million, really, I mean, how many cans of soda do you need to sell?

TUCHMAN: Gary Tuchman, CNN, Tampa.


COOPER: As for the rumors Madonna's having a romantic relationship with Alex Rodriguez, the singer denies it all. She does however, make no bones about her faith. She's a devoted follower of Kabbalah, a mystical faith steeped in Jewish spiritualism.

What exactly is Kabbalah? Up close tonight, once again, here's Randi Kaye.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kept a secret for most for more than 5,000 years, now embraced by celebrities, Kabbalah is in. Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, David Beckham, Madonna and now apparently, Yankee star Alex Rodriguez, all believers.

(on camera) Why do you think so many celebrities follow it?

RABBI NAFTALI CITRON, STUDIES KABBALAH: What the Kabbalah offers to them is the paradox of living in this day and age, wealth, success, power, on the other hand a lack of meaning, and the Kabbalah has a lot of those answers.

KAYE (voice-over): Rabbi Naftali Citron says Kabbalah, which means to receive, is not a religion, but the mystical component of Judaism that some say predates Moses. Through its book, "The Zohar," it teaches personal responsibility, not to blame others for your own problems.

MADONNA, SINGER: A Kabbalahist believes that he or she has the responsibility to make the world a better place.

CITRON: The application of it is to be less judgmental, to lose your ego, when possible, check it at the door and bring in soul to encounters, rather than just your own jealousy.

KAYE: Rabbi Citron says Kabbalah used to be reserved for men over 40, true Jewish scholars. That's changed. Now people from other religions embrace it.

The Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles, where Madonna is a frequent visitor, has been criticized by more conservative Jews for opening its doors to too many and teaching what critics call spirituality for dummies and McMysticism.

(on camera) Critics are suspicious of Kabbalahists because of their mystical beliefs. They believe in reincarnation. And in medieval times, some associated the mysticism of Kabbalah with black magic, even witchcraft.

CITRON: I don't know of any black magic, but I know the power of the mind is much more powerful than people think it is.

KAYE: Does Kabbalah have the power to break up a marriage? Friends of the wife of Yankee star, Alex Rodriguez, say yes. Cynthia Rodriguez just filed for divorce, accusing A-Rod of adultery, and those close to her suggest Madonna used Kabbalah to lure A-Rod in.

CITRON: Kabbalah has a very erotic element to it. So can somebody use Kabbalah to attract somebody else? It's definitely possible.

KAYE: Madonna has denied any romantic involvement. A-Rod wouldn't comment. His soon to be ex-father-in-law told "US Weekly" magazine, A-Rod has "gotten involved in Kabbalah, which isn't something we understand. We don't really get that."

MADONNA: In Kabbalah, we learn that, if we want something in life, we have to give something.

KAYE: Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


COOPER: Coming up next on 360, storm watch. Hurricane Bertha swirling in the Atlantic, picking up a steam. A live report of where it is heading, coming up.

Also, the latest on massive wildfires out west and how one man trying to save his own home has now been arrested for committing a crime, when 360 continues.


COOPER: We're keeping a very close eye on this powerful storm. The name is Bertha, the first hurricane of the 2008 season. Earlier today, it was a Category 2. Tonight it has intensified to a Category 3 storm.

CNN's severe weather expert Chad Myers is tracking Bertha for us. He joins us now with the latest. Chad, what do we know?

CHAD MYERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, now up to 120-mile-per- hour storm, although the hurricane center now says this is not as strong at this hour as it was three or four hours ago. This could have been a 125-mile-per-hour storm just a little bit ago. It has now lost a little bit of intensity.

What does all that mean? It's still a very big storm. It is certainly not the only major hurricane that's ever happened in July. The last ones were Dennis and Emily. That was just 2005.

But the interesting part about this storm is where it started. This started near what we call the Cape Verde islands. A Cape Verde hurricane -- see way over there, over by Africa -- a Cape Verde hurricane usually doesn't happen until August or September. Well, we're not there yet.

This is an early season Cape Verde major hurricane. Now, the good news is it's really not going to hit anything. It may make some big waves for Bermuda, but so far, so good. Not really going to hit anything.

Here's another map now. This is where the sea surface temperatures are. This is where Bertha is right now, in very warm water, well over 80 degrees. It started way back down here where they're not supposed to start this time of year. And that's what makes big Bertha such a big deal.

COOPER: Chad, last year, it was certainly a big year but nothing actually hit the U.S. This year it's predicted to be pretty bad, too, right?

MYERS: Right, about the same season that we had last year in terms of numbers. Now, we had -- we had two Category 5 hurricanes last year. One hit Honduras; one hit just south of, let's say, Plieto Carmen (ph).

Big-time damage but very, very few people actually live there. We didn't hear about it. We didn't have a lot of damage, because we didn't have a lot of big buildings. So this year, maybe we're started on a different path. Not so many storms in the Caribbean. Maybe in the Atlantic.

COOPER: Chad, thanks.

Up next, hundreds of wildfires still burning in California tonight. One of the biggest in scenic Big Sur. Firefighters struggling to fight the flames. So why did one man get arrested for trying to protect his own home? The story ahead.

Also tonight, why doctors are recommending cholesterol drugs for kids as young as 8. Should your child be taking them? We'll have the controversial new guidelines, next.


COOPER: Tonight, wildfires in California continue to rage out of control. With forecasts of searing heat to come, the fear is the flames might be growing.

This map tells the story: wildfires up and down the state, devouring hundreds of thousands of acres. One of the largest infernos right now is in Big Sur. To fight it, crews are setting controlled backfires, hoping they'll cut off the fuel supply.

Two brothers used that same strategy, they say, to save their own house, and it ended with one of them in handcuffs. That story now from CNN's Dan Simon.


DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With flames bearing down on Big Sur, Micah Curtis had few good options to save his family's 55-acre property. Firefighters were fighting other fires, so Curtis did what he thought was right. He set a backfire, something that usually only professionals do to burn the brush that fuels a fire's path.

(on camera) How did you actually start the backfire?

MICAH CURTIS, BIG SUR RESIDENT: With highway flares.

SIMON: You used a highway flare.

M. CURTIS: Which is why they got busted. Because they were two miles away with binoculars watching when they us and they saw highway flares.

SIMON (voice-over): Busted is right. Starting your own backfires is illegal, because so much can go wrong. A backfire can start other unintended fires and cause massive damage.

(on camera) Curtis doesn't exactly have a ton of experience. He was a firefighter 30 years ago during his college summers. But he says he knew what he was doing and credits his backfires with saving as many as eight houses on this mountain ridge, including this one.

M. CURTIS: Our backfire saved us. If we hadn't had those backfires, we would have been a meat and a sandwich between two flames coming up at 2 in the afternoon in 40-mile-an-hour winds.

SIMON (voice-over): Curtis says the backfire was textbook perfect, burning brush and then dying out. He claims some fire crews even praised his work.

M. CURTIS: Every fireman that came up here that's a captain or anything like that has just said we did incredible work.

SIMON: But authorities say the outcome is irrelevant.

MIKE DIETRICH, BIG SUR INCIDENT COMMANDER: What if this was a bad process with a bad outcome, possibly a fatality or a burn-over of firefighters? Or other citizens? He was fortunate. But that's not something that we subscribe to.

SIMON: Fire crews say they warned Curtis to stop his backfires, but he continued. Curtis disputes that. He claims he stopped when he was told.

What is not in dispute is the sheriff's office made an arrest. But instead of arresting Micah Curtis, they took his brother into custody.

M. CURTIS: My brother, Ross, says, "Somebody has got to be the fall guy here, it's going to be me."

ROSS CURTIS, ARRESTED FOR BACKFIRE: Me and my cousin were talking, and I said, "Well, we need a sacrificial lamb to go down there, because they're not going to leave until they have what they want."

M. CURTIS: By taking the fall, he says that allowed Micah to continue saving the family property. Ross Curtis could face up to a year in prison and a $10,000 in fine. Was it all worth it?

M. CURTIS: Ninety-nine percent of the people should not do what we did. And I'm not even saying it's a good idea we did it. But we did it, we saved our place. The proof is in the pudding.


COOPER: Dan, does this happen a lot, people setting their own backfires? I've never heard of it.

SIMON: It's actually very rare, and we should say it's probably a pretty good thing. And there are some exceptions when it comes to people starting their own backfires. The law in California says you can do it if you can prove that it was absolutely necessary to save lives and property.

So those brothers may actually have a solid legal argument. Now it's just up to the D.A. to decide whether to move forward, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Dan. Thanks very much for covering the fires.

Randi Kaye joins us again with a quick update, a "360 News and Business Bulletin" -- Randi.

KAYE: Hi, Anderson.

At least 41 people were killed, more than 100 others injured in a suicide car bombing in the capital of Afghanistan. The bomb went off outside the Indian embassy. Afghanistan officials are accusing Pakistan and its arch rival for carrying out the blast.

Oil prices tumbled nearly $4 a barrel today. News of a stronger U.S. dollar and less tension over a nuclear Iran brought down prices.

For the first time, doctors are recommending cholesterol fighting drugs for children as young as 8. The American Academy of Pediatrics also suggests low-fat milk for 1-year-olds with a family history of obesity or heart problems. All this with 17 percent of American children obese, and growing evidence that damage leading to heart disease begins early in life.

And Connecticut's attorney general says teen drinking must be taken more seriously. Well, that's after a ratings board approved the game called Beer Pong for -- get this -- children as young as 13.

COOPER: What? KAYE: Thirteen years old. Beer Pong.

COOPER: Yikes.

All right. Time for our "Beat 360" winners. Tonight's picture, Mexican farmers whose land was stripped from the -- from them in the early '90s, stripped in protest, wearing a photograph of the Mexican politician at the center of the dispute. They're wearing it there on their nether regions.

Our staff winner tonight is Ismael Estrada. His caption: "Just two more blocks, then we give 'em the whole enchilada."

(SOUND EFFECT: whistling)

COOPER: We have a special honorable mention from staffers Alana and Chuck: "Mexican health officials offer another tool in the abstinence arsenal: the Tito Puente prophylactic."

(SOUND EFFECT: "Ooooh!")

COOPER: Our viewer winner is Don from Washington state. His caption: "It was all fun and games until someone got a paper cut."


KAYE: That was a good one, too.

COOPER: That was a good one, too.

Don, thank you. You're going to get a 360 T-shirt, and you can check out all the entries we received in our blog and play along tomorrow by going to our new Web site,

"The Shot" is next. Next, launch of a lawn chair. One guy's strange takeoff. "The Shot," the outcome ahead.

And at the top of the hour, the relaunch of John McCain started today, but is it taking off? Plus, Barack Obama's move toward the middle. We'll be right back.


COOPER: All right, Randi, time now for "The Shot." Meet Kent Couch and his lawn chair. On Saturday, perhaps to celebrate his own independence, strapped balloons to his lawn chair and set off to the skies hoping, for the third time, to fly from Oregon to Idaho.

KAYE: Look at those balloons.

COOPER: He was hoping for the third time. We're happy to say his mission was success. He made the trip in about nine hours. To lower his colorful contraption, he used a BB gun to shoot down the balloons.

His wife says he's crazy. And we say couch potatoes and lawn lizards, do not try this at home.

And we should remind our viewers that there was a Brazilian priest who tried to do this a couple months ago, and just today, the Brazilian government said that they found a body that they think is his, badly decomposed. So...

KAYE: But Kent Couch is OK?

COOPER: Kent Couch is OK. He made it. But we encourage others not to -- to try to do that.

All right, still ahead on 360...

KAYE: Not how you're getting home tonight, right?

COOPER: No, I'm not going to use the lawn chair. Maybe not.

Still ahead on 360, John McCain launching his own ambitious plan. Nothing to do with a lawn chair, though. A plan to reclaim his campaign, connect with voters. Will it be enough to give him back his mojo?

Also, Barack Obama's apparent shift in strategy. Is he moving to the center as some of his supporters say? His campaign denies he's changing direction. But does that square with the facts? All ahead.


COOPER: Tonight, John McCain, Barack Obama, trading shots over the economy and shifting strategies. McCain trying to re-launch his campaign with a new staff and a new approach on the trail. The question is, is it going to be enough for McCain to regain his mojo?

Barack Obama, meantime, getting heat from some of his supporters for seemingly moving to the center on some key issues. Is he attacking right or simply emphasizing more centrist positions? Tonight, the facts.

Also ahead, for the first time since their release as hostages, three Americans speaking out, blasting the rebels who captured them and talking about what life has been like for the past five years.

And later, big Bertha, this year's first hurricane growing stronger. Now it is a powerful Category 3 storm. Where is it heading?