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’s remarks — his first blunt acknowledgment of the 2020 outcome after three years of hedging — were the latest sign that Mr. Trump’s rivals are seeking to use his growing legal troubles against him. In the days since Mr. Trump was indicted on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, both Mr. DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence have more sharply broken from the former president over his actions leading up to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

The criticism has been subtle. Neither candidate has openly attacked Mr. Trump or suggested that the charges are warranted. In his latest comments, Mr. DeSantis continued to suggest that the election had problems, calling it not “perfect.” But both appear to be seeking ways to use the indictment to press on the former president’s weaknesses and to build a case for themselves that even Trump supporters will hear.

Mr. DeSantis has also been trying to reset his struggling campaign, and his donors have pushed him to moderate his positions to appeal to a broader audience.

First, though, Mr. DeSantis must find a way through the Republican primary contest, in which Mr. Trump holds a dominant polling lead. And 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.

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 Mr. 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 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 in an interview that aired Sunday. “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. He cited 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.”

Mr. DeSantis acknowledged on Friday that the former president’s false conspiracy theories about a rigged 2020 election were “unsubstantiated.”

In the run-up to last year’s midterms, Mr. DeSantis campaigned for vociferous election deniers, including Doug Mastriano, who ran for governor in Pennsylvania, and Kari Lake, who did so in Arizona.

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.

For Mr. Trump’s hard-line supporters, Mr. DeSantis’s new 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, 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 could help assuage the fears of some of Mr. DeSantis’s 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 laid off more than a third of its staff last month.

As part of a “reboot” of his campaign, Mr. DeSantis has moved from the safe zone of speaking only with conservative pundits and opinion hosts at Fox News to greater access for mainstream news outlets, including interviews with CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC and The Wall Street Journal. He 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 with Mr. Trump. The governor never mentions him 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.”

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 recklessly or was 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 she had intentionally refrained from releasing a statement because she was “tired of commenting on every Trump drama.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech millionaire who has been a strong defender of Mr. Trump, said in a statement, “Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, and as I said shortly after the inauguration, I accept that result.”

But he added: “In reality, I do not believe Joe Biden is actually leading the country. I believe he is a de facto puppet for the managerial class in the administrative state that uses him as an instrument to achieve their own objectives.”

Reporting was contributed by Ruth Igielnik, Maya King, Jazmine Ulloa and Nick Corasaniti.



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