Presidential candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush tours the Nephron Pharmaceutical Co. on Monday in West Columbia, S.C. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The Confederate flag is a "racist" symbol, Jeb Bush said Monday during his first visit to South Carolina since a deadly church shooting here.

Bush, a former two-term Florida governor, explained that in 2001, "I decided to do something politically incorrect" and ordered the removal of a flag that included the Confederate symbol from the Florida State Capitol grounds.

"The symbols were racist," he told workers at a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant here. "If you're trying to lean forward rather than live in the past, you want to eliminate the barriers that create disagreements."

[Woman takes down Confederate flag in front of South Carolina statehouse]

Bush credited South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for "doing more or less the same thing under a lot of pressure" by announcing support for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol in nearby Columbia.

"South Carolina wants to be viewed as the host of this great business," he said. "Most South Carolinians ... are proud of the businesses that have come here. ... Anything that gets in the way of that vision, I think while doing it respectfully, ought to be put aside and allow South Carolina to move forward."

Bush was speaking to a racially diverse, mostly blue-collar crowd at the manufacturing plant, which produces medicine for patients suffering from asthma and COPD. He was asked about the Confederate flag by a black woman who identified herself as Valerie Hillary.

[S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley went from tea party star to a leader of the New South]

Bush's appearance came just a few hours after his aides say he met with about 50 religious leaders at a Charleston hotel conference room near the AME Emanuel Church, where nine people were shot dead nearly two weeks ago.

Bush aides announced the meeting but kept it closed to the press. Aides said the meeting included Methodist, evangelical and Catholic pastors and priests.

The meeting, while private, was in keeping with Bush's vow to campaign in neighborhoods not frequently visited by Republicans, including minority communities.

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