Gov. Ron DeSantis made only veiled criticisms of former President Donald J. Trump onstage at a state party summit in Florida, where the two candidates were both scheduled to appear.
For months, former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s most prominent politicians, have circled each other on the campaign trail, with Mr. Trump consistently ridiculing Mr. DeSantis and the governor only recently beginning to fire back.
On Saturday, their political tussle came home to Florida, where both candidates were scheduled to speak at the Florida Freedom Summit, a state party event in Kissimmee. It was the rare occasion where Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis were set to share the same stage, albeit hours apart.
Yet Mr. DeSantis, who faces a vast polling gap behind Mr. Trump, did not directly attack the former president, whose manhood he questioned this week. Instead, he shied away from his more recent outspokenness against his rival and returned to the veiled swipes that characterized the early stages of the race.
His hesitance to do so in front of the core Republican base seemed to reflect the biggest obstacle of his campaign. Even as the rivalry between Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis has defined the presidential primary contest for months, the former president’s grip on the party has not loosened. Mr. DeSantis, long considered his foremost challenger, has been losing ground.
At times in his speech on Saturday, Mr. DeSantis appeared to be operating within an alternate reality. During his remarks, he stood in front of a graphic that read “Florida is DeSantis Country.” Though the governor won the state by nearly 20 percentage points last year and drew strong support from the crowd in attendance, polling averages show Mr. Trump 35 points ahead of him in Florida.
And while Mr. DeSantis opened his speech by joking that he did not need a teleprompter — a jab at Mr. Biden — he frequently looked down at his notes as he spoke.
Even before either candidate showed up at the Florida Freedom Summit, the stage was set for the latest chapter in their bitter political duel. On Saturday morning, five Republican state lawmakers said that they were shifting their endorsements from the governor to the former president, a move first reported by The Messenger.
Their defections came days after Senator Rick Scott of Florida, Mr. DeSantis’s predecessor in the governor’s mansion with whom he has a frosty relationship, said that he was backing Mr. Trump.
Mr. DeSantis dismissed the significance of the legislators’ about-face.
“Look, this happens in these things,” he said after signing the paperwork to file for the Florida primary. “We’ve had flips the other way in other states. It’s a dynamic thing. I mean, politicians do what they’re going to do.”
Still, many Republicans in the state have been privately whispering that Mr. DeSantis seems weaker at home than ever before, and Mr. Trump’s allies have said they are recruiting more defectors.
“It’s time to unite our party behind Donald Trump,” State Senator Debbie Mayfield, one of the lawmakers who switched their support to Mr. Trump, said in a statement.
Mr. DeSantis has governed Florida with a tight grip since his election in 2018, systematically expanding the powers of his office and using the weight of his endorsement to stack the Legislature with allies.
Even before Mr. DeSantis announced he would run in 2024, nearly 100 state lawmakers endorsed him for president.
But the playing field has changed since Mr. DeSantis’s campaign began to struggle this summer. He is now regularly ridiculed by his onetime ally, Mr. Trump. Memes poke fun at his unfortunate moments on the campaign trail, including awkward facial expressions, forced laughs and a controversy over whether Mr. DeSantis wears lifts in his boots. (He says he does not.)
A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis’s campaign pointed out that he still has many more endorsements from state legislators in Florida, as well as in New Hampshire and Iowa, the first nominating states.
Mr. Trump, however, remains widely popular with voters in those states, leading by double-digits in polls. Though Mr. DeSantis has staked his campaign on a strong showing in Iowa, a recent poll found him tied there with Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. She has edged him out in polls in New Hampshire as well.
Ms. Haley was originally scheduled to speak at the summit but did not attend on Saturday. Her campaign did not respond to a question about her absence.
Mr. Trump has taken glee at Mr. DeSantis’s slips. “We just pounded him,” he said at a rally in Houston on Thursday. “And now I think we’re going to have to start hitting somebody else, because I think Ron looks like he’s finished.”
Mr. Trump will again try to overshadow Mr. DeSantis on Wednesday, when the governor and other G.O.P. rivals take part in the third Republican debate in Miami. The former president, who has announced that he will instead hold a rally in Hialeah, Fla., is skipping the debate once again, a decision Mr. DeSantis sharply criticized earlier this week but did not mention on Saturday.
“If Donald Trump can summon the balls to show up to the debate, I’ll wear a boot on my head,” Mr. DeSantis said in a television interview on Thursday.
Mr. Trump’s hold on Republicans in Florida was evident at the summit.
Mark Spowage, 73, said he had considered Mr. DeSantis a Republican “golden boy” after he received Mr. Trump’s endorsement in 2018. But his opinion of the governor plummeted when he announced that he was challenging Mr. Trump for the nomination — a shift shared by many of Mr. Trump’s most loyal followers.
“How does he think he has the right to do that?” Mr. Spowage, a software engineer, asked of Mr. DeSantis. “Because from my position, Trump was ordained, like someone that God has anointed to somehow take responsibility. For him to stand up to Trump, wow.”
Other candidates who criticized Mr. Trump were heckled. When former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said that he believed Mr. Trump would most likely be found guilty in one of the criminal cases he is facing, the boos were ferocious.
And Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey who has become an outspoken Trump critic, was jeered immediately after he took the stage.
Mr. Christie was not dissuaded, firing back at the crowd, “Your anger against the truth is reprehensible.”
Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting.