Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida clearly stated in a new interview that Donald J. Trump lost the 2020 election, diverging from the orthodoxy of most Republican voters as the former president’s struggling G.O.P. rivals test out new lines of attack against him.
“Of course he lost,” Mr. DeSantis said in an interview with NBC News published on Monday. “Joe Biden’s the president.”
The comments came after Mr. DeSantis, who is polling well behind Mr. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, acknowledged on Friday that the former president’s false theories about a rigged 2020 election were “unsubstantiated.”
For years, Mr. DeSantis dodged direct answers to questions about whether he believed the election was stolen. During the 2022 midterms, he also campaigned for Republican candidates nationwide who vehemently denied the 2020 results.
Now, Mr. DeSantis’s increasingly aggressive stance suggests that Mr. Trump’s legal problems have sent his Republican competitors looking for some way to take advantage. While none of his top rivals are openly attacking him over his latest criminal charges, they are trying to press on his weaknesses — acknowledging reality and bursting the bubble of denial that he and many Republicans live in.
Mr. DeSantis’s latest answer, while accurate, may put him at odds with much of the Republican base. Although the 2020 election was widely found to have been secure, roughly 70 percent of Republican voters say that President Biden’s victory was not legitimate, according to a CNN poll conducted last month. Mr. Trump continues to insist that he was the rightful winner.
In a statement, Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said that “Ron DeSantis should really stop being Joe Biden’s biggest cheerleader.”
So far, of the most prominent candidates, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Vice President Mike Pence have spoken out most strongly against Mr. Trump. Mr. Christie is running on an explicitly anti-Trump platform. Mr. Pence has said that Mr. Trump deserves the “presumption of innocence” but has also said he would testify in the former president’s trial over Jan. 6, 2021, if called to do so.
“The American people deserve to know that President Trump asked me to put him over my oath to the Constitution, but I kept my oath and I always will,” Mr. Pence told CNN. “And I’m running for president in part because I think anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.”
But neither argument appears to be resonating with Republican voters. Mr. Christie is polling at about 2 percent in national surveys, and Mr. Pence has not yet qualified for the first Republican debate later this month. At a dinner for the Republican Party of Iowa late last month, the audience booed former Representative Will Hurd of Texas, a long-shot candidate, after he accused the former president of “running to stay out of prison.”
In the NBC interview, Mr. DeSantis still said he saw problems with how the 2020 election was conducted, citing the widespread use of mail-in ballots, private donations to election administrators from the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and efforts by social media companies to limit the spread of a report about Hunter Biden’s laptop.
“I don’t think it was a good-run election,” Mr. DeSantis said. “But I also think Republicans didn’t fight back. You’ve got to fight back when that is happening.”
Still, his more forceful response to the 2020 question serves as a reminder to Republican voters that under Mr. Trump, the party has performed poorly in three elections in a row.
His remarks may help assuage the fears of some big-money donors. Robert Bigelow, who contributed more than $20 million to a super PAC backing Mr. DeSantis, told Reuters last week that he would not give more money unless Mr. DeSantis adopted a more moderate approach. The governor’s campaign is experiencing a fund-raising shortfall and last month laid off more than a third of its staff.
Mr. DeSantis has also had more opportunities to address sensitive subjects like 2020 in recent weeks. As part of a “reboot” of his campaign, he has opened himself up to more interviews with mainstream news outlets, retreating from the safety of sitting down only with hosts from Fox News and conservative pundits. He has recently given one-on-one interviews to CNN, CBS, ABC and The Wall Street Journal, in addition to NBC, and has also taken far more questions from reporters on the campaign trail.
He has used those platforms to dig at Mr. Trump for his age, his failure to “drain the swamp” during his term in office, and the “culture of losing” that Mr. DeSantis says has overtaken the Republican Party under Mr. Trump’s leadership.
But he has also defended Mr. Trump over the criminal charges, saying they represent the “weaponization” of federal government against a political rival of Mr. Biden. Taken together, Mr. DeSantis’s comments on the former president suggest he is inching, rather than running, toward more direct confrontation.
In the NBC interview, Mr. DeSantis also stated his belief that Republicans must move their focus beyond the indictments against Mr. Trump to challenging Mr. Biden, and continued to defend Florida’s new standards on how slavery is taught in schools.
And he provided more of an explanation for his campaign-trail promise that migrants suspected of smuggling drugs across the southern border would be shot. Mr. DeSantis has often said that smugglers who try to break through the border wall would be left “stone-cold dead,” usually to thunderous applause at campaign events. But he has not said how U.S. law enforcement would identify them.
“Same way a police officer would know,” Mr. DeSantis replied when asked to explain the mechanics of his policy. “Same way somebody operating in Iraq would know. You know, these people in Iraq at the time, they all looked the same. You didn’t know who had a bomb strapped to them. So those guys have to make judgments.”
Ruth Igielnik contributed reporting.