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.”
Mr. DeSantis, who is polling well behind Mr. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, had acknowledged on Friday that the former president’s false conspiracy theories about a rigged 2020 election were “unsubstantiated.”
While the Florida governor is not making a complete break with the election-denying wing of the Republican Party — he said in the latest interview that there were various problems with the 2020 election and described it as not “perfect” — his comments represent an apparent change in strategy. For years, he dodged direct answers to questions about whether he believed the contest was stolen, and during the 2022 midterms, he campaigned for election deniers.
Mr. DeSantis’s increasingly aggressive stance serves to buttress his overall argument against Mr. Trump, namely that under his leadership Republicans have performed poorly in three elections in a row. And it suggests that Mr. Trump’s legal problems have sent his Republican competitors looking for some way to take advantage.
While none of Mr. Trump’s top rivals are openly attacking him over his most recent criminal charges, they are trying to press on the former president’s weaknesses — acknowledging reality and bursting the bubble of denial that he and many Republicans live in.
Mr. DeSantis’s latest remarks, 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 required 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.”
Both lost, as did all of their most prominent counterparts, showing that while election denial can work in Republican primaries, it does not play as well in general elections in battleground states. Sixty percent of independent voters nationwide believe Mr. Biden won the 2020 election, the CNN poll found — an ominous sign for Republicans who embrace election denialism going into 2024.
Mr. DeSantis must first make it through the Republican primary, however. And for Mr. Trump’s hard-line supporters, his comments on the 2020 election were seen as disqualifying.
“Any politician that says that Donald Trump lost that election and Biden really won is done,” Mike Lindell, the pillow company founder who has been a vocal promoter of conspiracy theories about election machines, said in an interview on Monday with The New York Times. “Their campaign is basically over when they make a comment like that.”
Mr. DeSantis’s shift, however, could 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 opinion 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.
“I think I’m the only candidate running who can win the primary, defeat Joe Biden, and then deliver on all of these things that we know that needs to be done,” Mr. DeSantis said at a WMUR town-hall event with New Hampshire voters last week.
But he has also consistently 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. The governor never mentions Mr. Trump by name in his stump speech to voters, preferring to engage on the topic only when asked by attendees at his campaign events or by reporters.
Some candidates running for the Republican nomination have already confirmed the overall legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Speaking to voters last month, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina — who is currently polling in third place in Iowa, behind Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, according to the latest New York Times/Siena College poll — said that he did not believe the election was “stolen.”
“There was cheating, but was the election stolen?” Mr. Scott asked. “There’s a difference.”
He has also said that he supports efforts in Georgia and more than a dozen other Republican-led states to tighten voting measures, including restrictions on drop-boxes and signature verification on ballots. Civil rights and voting rights activists have criticized those initiatives, saying they could prevent low-income and minority voters from voting.
Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, has rejected Mr. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election but has markedly calibrated between criticism and defense of the former president.
Before the Capitol riot, she refused to acknowledge that he was acting reckless or irresponsible in refusing to concede. But in its immediate aftermath, she harshly criticized Mr. Trump and wrongly predicted that he had fallen so low that he would lose all political viability.
Within months, she had again embraced him, saying he was needed in the Republican Party. After the Jan. 6 indictment against Mr. Trump was released, Ms. Haley told a New Hampshire radio show that said she had intentionally refrained from releasing a statement because she was “tired of commenting on every Trump drama.”
A spokeswoman for Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech millionaire who is doing better in the polls than expected and has been a strong defender of Mr. Trump, did not respond to questions about whether Mr. Ramaswamy believed Mr. Trump had lost the election.
Soon after the breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6, Mr. Ramaswamy posted on Twitter: “What Trump did last week was wrong. Downright abhorrent. Plain and simple.” But he has since sought to walk a finer line, repeatedly stating that he would pardon Mr. Trump for any conviction over Jan. 6.
Last week, Mr. Ramaswamy sidestepped questions about whether he would have certified the 2020 election had he been serving as vice president, stating only, “I would have never let it get to that point.”
Reporting was contributed by Ruth Igielnik, Maya King, Jazmine Ulloa and Nick Corasaniti.