In the chaos of Wednesday night’s noisy Republican presidential debate, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina interrupted Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida to pose a question on abortion that Mr. DeSantis had dodged directly answering for months.
Would the Florida governor sign a “15-week limit” on abortion as president, Mr. Scott asked, talking over both Mr. DeSantis and Dana Perino, one of the moderators, in a way that made his full remarks difficult to hear.
“Yes, I will,” Mr. DeSantis replied.
The moment — which largely escaped attention in real time but was noted by The Daily Signal, a news website published by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank — clarifies Mr. DeSantis’s position on abortion, an issue that has split the Republican primary field. Mr. DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida this year, but had not clearly committed to supporting federal legislation restricting the termination of pregnancies.
Mr. DeSantis is using abortion to attack former President Donald J. Trump, particularly in socially conservative states like Iowa, where he is making his biggest push to dethrone Mr. Trump as the race’s front-runner.
Despite appointing the Supreme Court justices who proved critical in overturning Roe v. Wade, Mr. Trump has ducked questions about whether he would support a 15-week ban, the baseline position of many anti-abortion activists in the Republican Party. And, with a clear eye on the general election — where a hard-line position on abortion could turn off moderate and independent voters and galvanize Democrats — Mr. Trump has criticized Mr. DeSantis for signing the six-week ban, calling it a “terrible mistake.”
Mr. DeSantis used those comments to open a line of attack against the former president, telling “pro-lifers” that Mr. Trump was “preparing to sell you out.” Other conservatives, including Kim Reynolds, the popular Republican governor of Iowa who signed a similar abortion ban, have also joined in criticizing Mr. Trump. (Few women know they are pregnant by six weeks.)
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said that the former president had “championed the life of the unborn.”
Previously, Mr. DeSantis had generally said he would support anti-abortion legislation but had not committed to signing such a federal ban. At the first debate in Milwaukee last month, Mr. DeSantis seemed to hedge when asked if he would support a six-week ban as president. “I’m going to stand on the side of life,” he said, adding that conservative and liberal states would want to handle abortion restrictions differently.
On Thursday, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign disputed the idea that his comments were a change from his past position, pointing to an interview he gave to Radio Iowa this month. Asked if he would sign a 15-week ban, Mr. DeSantis said, “You put pro-life legislation on my desk, I’m going to look favorably and support the legislation.”
Other candidates running for the Republican nomination have been more clear. Former Vice President Mike Pence has said he supports at least a 15-week ban. Mr. Scott has also suggested he would, at a minimum, sign a 15-week ban. At the same time, former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who calls herself “unapologetically pro-life,” has knocked her rivals for what she has said are empty promises, given that Republicans would find it nearly impossible to force such restrictions through a polarized Congress.
“Ron had months to advocate for a federal limit,” said Nathan Brand, Mr. Scott’s communications director, “yet discouraged efforts to protect life. If you’re going to back down on an issue, this is the one to do it on. Glad Ron is now on board.”
Abortion barely featured at Wednesday’s matchup, after playing a far more prominent role at the previous debate. Only Mr. DeSantis and former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey were asked to comment. The question that prompted Mr. Scott’s interruption was a challenge to Mr. DeSantis asking how he would win over abortion rights supporters in Arizona, a key swing state.
Mr. DeSantis responded that he had won a resounding re-election in Florida last year. And he took the opportunity to criticize Mr. Trump, who skipped the debate.
“The former president, you know, he is missing in action tonight,” Mr. DeSantis said. “He’s had a lot to say about that. He should be here explaining his comments to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing.”
The next day, Democrats seized on Mr. DeSantis’s pledge to sign a 15-week ban — a reminder of how potent both parties see the issue in November’s election. On Twitter, the Democratic National Committee’s rapid response “War Room” account said that Mr. DeSantis had “an extreme anti-abortion record” and wanted to “rip away reproductive freedoms from women across the country.”