Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, with his poll numbers sagging and his opponents circling, defended his struggling campaign on Tuesday, saying on CNN that he had been “taking fire nonstop” but was putting together the political operation he needed to win the early nominating states next year and vault to the presidency.
His afternoon appearance in a rare interview in the mainstream news media seemed intended to reset his White House campaign after weeks of second-guessing from critics who have failed to see much progress in catching his main rival, Donald J. Trump. But a major shift in tone or strategy from Mr. DeSantis, either toward the former president or in the issues he focuses on, did not appear in the offing.
He remained deferential to Mr. Trump even after the front-runner signaled on Tuesday morning that he could soon be indicted for a third time, in this instance on federal charges stemming from his efforts to cling to power after losing the 2020 election. Speaking with the CNN host Jake Tapper, Mr. DeSantis dodged questions on his support for a national abortion ban, whether he would commit U.S. troops to defend Taiwan and how to end the war in Ukraine.
But he expressed confidence that he was laying the groundwork for victory in the Iowa caucuses in January, and that he, as the only military veteran in the race, would win South Carolina, a military-heavy state that comes third in the primary process.
“I’ll be the first president elected since 1988 that served in a war,” Mr. DeSantis, who served in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps in Iraq, said outside South Carolina’s capital building in Columbia.
Simply appearing on CNN appeared to be an acknowledgment that Mr. DeSantis needs to change his approach after confining his interviews to conservative news outlets and relying on allies to take on the former president. Mr. Trump has comfortably led polls nationally and in the Palmetto State for months.
And Mr. DeSantis’s newly released fund-raising figures, although strong overall at $20 million, showed that his campaign has been spending hand over fist and is dangerously dependent on large donors, who could be looking elsewhere for a Trump alternative. His campaign has also begun cutting its staff, in another worrying sign.
Still, mindful of alienating core Republican voters who are sympathetic to Mr. Trump, Mr. DeSantis pulled his punches on Tuesday. After news broke that Mr. Trump had received a “target letter” from the special counsel, Jack Smith, the Florida governor said Mr. Trump “should have come out more forcefully” on Jan. 6, 2021, to stop the rioting at the Capitol.
But Mr. DeSantis added that criminal charges would fit a pattern of weaponization of political institutions against conservatives.
“I think what we’ve seen in this country is an attempt to criminalize politics and to try to criminalize differences,” he said during a campaign event in West Columbia, S.C.
Mr. DeSantis’s social media team, in fact, pushed back on the suggestion that the governor was insufficiently supportive of the former president.
How such deference might undermine Mr. Trump’s lead was unclear. Two Republican candidates from South Carolina, Senator Tim Scott and former Gov. Nikki Haley, are also hoping to capitalize on Mr. Trump’s legal peril and Mr. DeSantis’s stumbles and present themselves as the new alternative to the former president.
For Mr. DeSantis, a drastic reboot of his campaign is not obvious.
On Monday night in Tega Cay, S.C., on the North Carolina border, he stuck to his well-worn talking points: the supposed “indoctrination” of children by “leftist” educators; mobilizing the military to the southern border to stop “our country being invaded”; and his disappointment in Mr. Trump for failing to fire Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who helped lead the Covid-19 response.
On Tuesday morning, Mr. DeSantis discussed military policy in an airplane hangar outside Columbia. He filed the paperwork formally declaring his candidacy in the state that morning.
His remarks were heavy on themes he has hit since he joined the race: railing against diversity, equity and inclusion programs and what he called “woke operating policies” like drag shows, which the Defense Department ended last month. He also proposed to reinstate the Trump administration’s ban on transgender sailors, soldiers and marines, and promised to end funding for transition care for active-duty service members.
Pressed by Mr. Tapper on how the roughly one million transgender adults in the United States would live under a DeSantis administration, the governor said military readiness took precedence over what he characterized as individual life choices.
Beyond the military, he said, “I would respect everybody, but what I wouldn’t do is turn society upside down” to accommodate “a very, very small percentage of the population.”
Mr. DeSantis also said he would reinstate service members who had been relieved of duty for declining to take the Covid-19 vaccine, a move that Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III instituted a year ago.
Although the Trump administration broadly moved against transgender rights throughout the federal government, the DeSantis campaign has framed Mr. Trump as weak on his opposition to rolling back L.G.B.T.Q. rights. It may be having an impact.
Elizabeth James, 69, a retiree and self-proclaimed “grandmama for DeSantis” who lives in the Columbia area, said she supported Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020 but soured on him after he “waffled” on transgender issues. She applauded Mr. DeSantis’s plans to end military funding for service members’ transition surgeries and said she believed that too few Republican voters knew enough about Mr. Trump’s record on L.G.B.T.Q. issues.
“They’re just holding over from him in 2020 without re-examining where he is now,” she said of the former president. “I think he shifted a lot from where he was.”
By holding the CNN interview, the governor had most likely hoped to quiet detractors who say he cannot handle the heat of a critical press.
Mr. Tapper pressed Mr. DeSantis on whether he would sign a national ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, mirroring the ban he signed in Florida. He said he saw no evidence Congress could pass a national abortion ban.
On committing to send U.S. troops to beat back a theoretical Chinese invasion of Taiwan, again, he dodged: “We’re going to deter that from happening.”
And on the hot-button Republican issue of continued U.S. military support for Ukraine, he was even more vague.
“The goal should be a sustainable, enduring peace in Europe, but one that does not reward aggression,” he said.
The DeSantis political operation may be strengthening its jabs against Mr. Trump. The DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down confirmed on Tuesday that a new advertisement from the group had used artificial intelligence to mimic the voice of Mr. Trump as if it were attacking Iowa’s popular conservative governor, Kim Reynolds. Politico reported on the ad on Monday evening.
Mr. Trump’s feud with Ms. Reynolds over her refusal to endorse him is real, and began with an attack on his social network, Truth Social. And it could hurt the former president’s chances in Iowa.
But the ad falsely purports to catch Mr. Trump on tape. The super PAC said, “Our team utilized technology to give voice to Donald Trump’s words and Truth Social post attacking Gov. Reynolds.”
The Trump campaign evinced no fear.
“The DeSantis campaign doesn’t know how to turn things around with their current candidate,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser for the Trump campaign, said in a statement.