- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 28, 2016

PURCELLVILLE, Va. — Sen. Jeff Sessions, who led the fight against the 2013 Senate immigration bill, endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential bid Sunday, breaking his own precedent to boost the billionaire businessman just ahead of the biggest day on the primary election calendar.

He made the move just hours after Mr. Trump’s campaign veered into nativist territory when he refused in a television interview to condemn the Ku Klux Klan or the racism of former KKK leader David Duke.

In his comments on CNN, Mr. Trump said he didn’t know Mr. Duke, a well-known white supremacist. When specifically prodded to reject the KKK, the candidate declined, saying he didn’t want to tar all groups because “you may have groups in there that are totally fine.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow presidential candidate, said Mr. Trump’s excuses rang hollow and that the Republican Party should reject him as their nominee.

“We cannot be a party that nominates somebody who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan,” Mr. Rubio pleaded to Republican supporters at a rally in Loudoun County, one of the fast-growing Virginia suburbs of Washington.

Virginia is a key battleground for the Republican primary this week and for the general election in November.

With Mr. Trump proving ever more divisive, conservative leaders were seeking a unity candidate to derail him. Hobby Lobby founder David Green joined a host of high-profile conservative commentators and Republican lawmakers in calling for voters in Super Tuesday states to support anyone but Mr. Trump.

“I don’t see humility in Mr. Trump, and that scares me to death,” Mr. Green said in a Sunday statement on KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City endorsing Mr. Rubio.

Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, began circulating a letter last week in the House asking one of the senators to drop out of the race and stop splitting the anti-Trump vote.

Mr. Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich remain as contenders, dividing the anti-Trump vote.

Each is awaiting vital election tests. Mr. Cruz leads in polling heading into his home-state Texas primary Tuesday. Mr. Kasich trails in Ohio, and Mr. Rubio is behind Mr. Trump in his home state of Florida.

“It is critical for anybody who is left in this race to be able to win their own home state,” Mr. Kasich said on CNN. “You can’t win your home state, you need to get out. So, we’re going to go to Ohio. I will win Ohio. If I don’t win Ohio, then it’s time to call it over.”

The chief issue that continues to roil the Republican field is immigration.

Mr. Rubio, in last week’s debate, accused Mr. Trump of having been fined for illegally hiring foreign workers to build Trump Tower and for turning to foreign guest workers to staff his exclusive Florida country club. Fact-checkers have backed up the claims, leaving Mr. Trump to wave off the fine as a different time and to say he has no choice but to hire foreign workers because Americans won’t do the jobs he needs.

Firing back, Mr. Trump has raised Mr. Rubio’s shaky history on immigration. The senator from Florida was a key author and chief spokesman of the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration bill.

“Little Marco Rubio gave amnesty to criminal aliens guilty of ‘sex offenses.’ DISGRACE!” Mr. Trump tweeted Sunday, pointing to a review of the 2013 bill by the Center for Immigration Studies.

The intense interest in immigration makes Mr. Sessions’ endorsement all the more powerful — particularly because Mr. Cruz, who has yet to score an endorsement from any of his fellow senators, repeatedly pointed to his work with Mr. Sessions against the immigration bill as proof of his bona fides on the issue.

“I think at this time, in my opinion, my best judgment we need to make America great again,” Mr. Sessions said at a Trump rally in Alabama, donning one of the red caps emblazoned with the Trump campaign slogan.

His endorsement marks the first time in his two-decade career in Congress that he has picked sides in a presidential primary.

Already one of the wildest seasons in modern political history, the campaign has grown more farcical over the past week.

During the debate Thursday, Mr. Rubio unleashed some of the deepest strikes yet at Mr. Trump. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former low-performing candidate, countered the next day by endorsing Mr. Trump. The KKK dispute threatens to keep Mr. Trump on the defensive, and Mr. Cruz said Sunday that the billionaire businessman may be keeping his tax returns secret because of mob ties.

Challenged by NBC host Chuck Todd, Mr. Cruz said ABC and CNN have reported on Mr. Trump’s “business dealings with, for example, S&A Construction, which was owned by Fat Tony Salerno, who is a mobster, who is in jail.”

Mr. Trump has taken to labeling Mr. Rubio as “little Marco Rubio” and mocking him for a bad debate performance in New Hampshire several weeks ago.

Muddying the Duke waters further, Mr. Trump tweeted Sunday afternoon a video clip from Friday’s Christie endorsement announcement that seemed to indicate that he knew perfectly well who Mr. Duke was and what he represents.

David Duke endorsed me? OK. I disavow. OK,” he said in a testy fashion.

Five candidates remain in the competition for the nomination: Mr. Trump, Mr. Rubio, Mr. Cruz, Mr. Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Mr. Carson has struggled with poor showings in all of the states that have voted so far.

Mr. Cruz, speaking on other Sunday political talk shows, said if Mr. Trump steamrolls through Super Tuesday, it may be difficult to stop him. But the Texan predicted that he would be the best second choice and tops Mr. Trump in polling in a head-to-head matchup.

“I think Super Tuesday we will effectively have two candidates coming out of it that have a viable path, that have enough delegates to have a shot at winning, and head to head with Donald Trump, I’d beat Donald by 16 points, 56-40,” he told “Meet the Press.”

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