- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2016

Donald Trump fended off tough questions Thursday night about his business empire’s hiring practices including a million-dollar fine for hiring illegal immigrants and admitted he’s facing a federal tax audit, as the Republican presidential campaign turned exceptionally nasty at the final debate before Super Tuesday.

Mr. Trump called fellow candidate Sen. Ted Cruz a “basket case,” while Mr. Cruz said Mr. Trump is hiding something in his finances, and accused him of being a political turncoat who’s shipped hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic causes throughout his career.

Sen. Marco Rubio called Mr. Trump a one-trick candidate who can’t detail his health care plans, and accused him of being a rich kid who benefited from his father’s money. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich said the rest of the field appeared to be trying to chase voters away from the GOP by the tone of the campaign.

SEE ALSO: 2016 GOP Debates: Highlights of the Republican presidential primary debates

As it has for much of the campaign, immigration served as the deepest dividing line — but Mr. Trump, who had been the driving force on the issue, surprisingly found himself on the defensive, answering charges from Sen. Marco Rubio that one of his businesses was dinged for illegally hiring Polish workers.

“You’re the only person on this stage that’s ever been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally,” Mr. Rubio said.

“I’m the only one on this stage that’s hired people — you haven’t hired anybody,” Mr. Trump countered. “He brings up something from 30 years ago, it worked out very well, everybody was happy. The laws were totally different. That was a whole different world.”

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump says he’s being audited by IRS, will wait on releasing tax returns

But the attacks are beginning to pile up, with a New York Times story this week saying Mr. Trump’s Florida country club has hired hundreds of foreign seasonal workers, rejecting applications from Americans.

Mr. Trump said his Mar-a-Lago Club has no choice but to go to foreign workers, saying he can’t find enough Americans willing to work the hot season.

“Everybody agrees with me on that. They were part-time jobs,” he said. “Otherwise we might as well have just closed the doors.”

The debate was held in Houston and aired on CNN, with the moderators prodding Mr. Trump on whether he would release his tax returns. The businessman said he would like to — but he’s in the middle of a tax audit, and can’t do it until that’s done.

“Every year they audit me, audit me,” he said, saying he’s been audited for a dozen or so years, and that the current audit — which he insisted was routine — covers about five years.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the fifth candidate on the stage, said he was never audited until he delivered a scorching speech several years ago criticizing President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast.

“The IRS is not honest, and we need to get rid of them,” he said.

Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz promised they’ll release their returns in the next couple of days. But Mr. Cruz said the fact that Mr. Trump is being audited is an even more pressing reason for voters to see if there are problems with his returns that could hurt him if he’s the GOP nominee.

Mr. Trump repeatedly attacked the other candidates on stage, accusing them of being politicians capable of being bought. At one point he even turned the attack on Mr. Cruz.

“I funded you. I funded this guy,” Mr. Trump said.

“You never funded me,” Mr. Rubio chimed in.

One of the sharpest exchanges came when the candidates were asked about their health care plans. Mr. Trump, who recently said he liked the individual mandate requiring Americans to purchase insurance, said he would still repeal the Affordable Care Act, and then he would allow insurance companies to sell plans across state lines.

Mr. Rubio then mocked him, saying that was a thin plan. He offered to give Mr. Trump some of his own debate time to give more details, but Mr. Trump repeated his goal of deleting “the lines” around the states.

“Now he is repeating himself,” Mr. Rubio quipped — aware that the same charge was leveled against him during a debate earlier this month in New Hampshire.

“I don’t repeat myself. I don’t repeat myself,” Mr. Trump fired back.

Mr. Rubio said Mr. Trump repeats five things every night: “Everyone is dumb. He is going to make America great again. We are going to win, win, win. He is winning in the polls and the lines around the state. Every night the same thing.”

Mr. Trump said, “I tell the truth. I tell the truth.”

On the campaign trail, Mr. Rubio continues to build momentum as the anti-Trump choice of establishment-minded Republicans and local power brokers. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam endorsed him on Thursday, joining more than a dozen House and Senate members in Washington who have also flocked to the Rubio campaign this week.

The departure of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush from the race — he withdrew after a third straight poor showing in Saturday’s South Carolina primary — made the decision easier for many of those Republicans.

Newspapers are also increasingly tilting toward Mr. Rubio, with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram adding its voice Thursday. The paper took a shot at its home-state senator, Mr. Cruz, dismissing him as some bent on “amplifying public anger instead of channeling it productively,” and waved off Mr. Trump as “a foul-mouthed provocateur.” Mr. Rubio, the paper said, offered “a clear, comprehensive and unfailingly optimist vision.”

The campaign hurtles toward Super Tuesday with Mr. Trump in a commanding position.

Across four contests so far, he’s won about 32 percent of the vote — the same level as eventual 2012 nominee Mitt Romney had at this point, and slightly above what 2008 GOP nominee Sen. John McCain had after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

With time running out, the non-Trump candidates have spent the last week sparring over which of them is in the best position to derail the billionaire businessman.

Marco Rubio can’t win. Ted Cruz can,” Mr. Cruz’s campaign said in a fundraising email.

For his part Mr. Rubio has begun to take aim at Mr. Trump, saying the businessman had been complimentary toward some parts of Obamacare. On Thursday the Rubio campaign also blasted out a New York Times article calling attention to the foreign workers recruited to work at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Pal Beach, Florida, which Mr. Trump owns.

Several major tests are coming up.

Texas votes on March 1 as part of the Super Tuesday slate of primaries, and recent polling shows Mr. Cruz leading Mr. Trump. Both Ohio, home of Mr. Kasich, and Florida, home of Mr. Rubio, vote on March 15 — and the latest polling shows Mr. Trump leading each of the hometown heroes in those states.

But analysts say that if the anti-Trump vote is still divided as of March 15, Mr. Trump will likely have the nomination in hand.

In addition to Texas, Super Tuesday features primaries in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Vermont, Tennessee and Virginia. GOP caucuses will be held in Alaska, Colorado and Minnesota.

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