Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida on Monday defended his remarks urging Republican voters not to be “listless vessels” that automatically support former President Donald J. Trump.
“If you’re not rooted in principle, if all we are is listless vessels that’s just supposed to follow whatever happens to come down the pike on Truth Social every morning, that’s not going to be a durable movement,” Mr. DeSantis added.
The comments quickly prompted backlash over the weekend from Mr. Trump’s campaign and supporters, who said the comments insulted his voters. Many likened Mr. DeSantis’s remarks to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 comments that half of Mr. Trump’s supporters fit into a “basket of deplorables.”
A spokeswoman for MAGA Inc., Mr. Trump’s super PAC, Karoline Leavitt, said on Saturday in a statement posted online that “DeSantis must immediately apologize for his disgraceful insult.”
Asked about the remarks during an appearance on Fox News on Monday afternoon, Mr. DeSantis said he was referring to members of Congress who had called him a “RINO,” or “Republican in Name Only.”
“The people in Congress that I was referring to, that have attacked me and tried to say somehow that I was a RINO, they’re putting entertainment and personality over principle,” he said. “Our voters want us to stand on principle and fight for them.”
Mr. DeSantis, who remains in a distant second place to Mr. Trump, has in recent weeks faced a series of campaign woes that included significant campaign staff cuts, stagnant polls and a leaked debate strategy memo. He has received frequent criticism from Mr. Trump and will most likely be the target of further attacks by others at the Republican National Committee debate Wednesday as the leading candidate onstage in Mr. Trump’s absence.
“Looks like Ron DeSanctimonious just had his ‘Basket of Deplorables’ moment. Not good!” Jason Miller, an adviser to the Trump campaign, said Saturday on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who has been critical of Mr. Trump but has defended him more frequently in recent months, told Fox News that Mr. DeSantis’s comments occurred “while his numbers were tanking” and helped explain why other candidates, such as the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, were “on the rise.”
“I don’t know why anyone running for president would put down half of the electorate and identify them, call them listless vessels, because they support the former president,” she said.
Others in the presidential race seized the opportunity to criticize Mr. DeSantis as well. Mr. Ramaswamy wrote on Sunday that “the real danger to our movement is the rise of ‘listless-vessel’ robot politicians who blindly follow the commands of their Super PACs,” an apparent reference to the Never Back Down super PAC that has effectively taken over Mr. DeSantis’s campaign. The New York Times reported last week about a trove of documents that a political consulting firm associated with the super PAC had posted online. The documents described key details about how Mr. DeSantis might approach the debate, including suggested language for attacking Mr. Ramaswamy.
Bryan Griffin, a DeSantis spokesman, pushed back and said Saturday that Mr. DeSantis’s remarks were aimed at Mr. Trump and his “congressional endorsers.”
“The dishonest media refuses to report the facts — Donald Trump and some congressional endorsers are ‘listless vessels.’ Why? Because Trump and D.C. insiders feel he is entitled to your vote,” Mr. Griffin wrote on X.
“That’s why Ron DeSantis will be showing up on Wednesday night to debate, and Donald Trump will not,” he added.
Mr. DeSantis said in his Monday interview on Fox News that he had intended to emphasize what he saw as “one of the big problems with our party for many, many years,” which is that people “say they’re going to do certain things and then don’t end up following through.”
He called for a focus, instead, on “delivering for the people that have put us into office.”