Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush attends a town hall meeting at the Mary A. Fisk Elementary School in Salem, N.H., on Sept. 10, 2015 . (Photos by Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. -- Jeb Bush said here Thursday night that Republicans can win more African American voters by emphasizing a positive message that does not involve promising "free stuff," a remark that bore echoes of comments by Mitt Romney that drew criticism in 2012.

"Look around this room," a man told Bush, who spoke to a mostly white crowd. "How many black faces do you see? How are you going to include them and get them to vote for you?" asked the man, who was white.

Bush pointed to his record on school choice and said that if Republicans could double their share of the black vote, they would win the swing states of Ohio and Virginia.

"Our message is one of hope and aspiration," he said at the East Cooper Republican Women’s Club annual Shrimp Dinner. "It isn't one of division and get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting -- that says you can achieve earned success."

According to a pool report, Romney, who struggled badly with minority voters in the 2012 election, said during a Montana fundraiser that year:  "I want people to know what I stand for and if I don't stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that's just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy -- more free stuff." Romney was explaining his remarks that day at the NAACP’s national convention, where he was booed.

Bush also expanded on his recent remark that "we should not have a multicultural society."

"I'm going to be a professor here for a second," he said when a reporter asked him about it.

"We're pluralistic," Bush added. "We're not multicultural. We have a set of shared values that defines our national identity. And we should never veer away from that."

Even as he has slipped in state and national polls, Bush voiced confidence that he will win South Carolina's "First in the South" primary as his brother and father did.

"I'm going to win South Carolina," he told reporters. "Take it to the bank."

Pretty strong words, one pointed out.

"I feel pretty confident about it. We've got a lot of support here. We're well organized. And South Carolina'a been pretty good to the Bush family over the years," he replied.

Until recently, South Carolina was long seen as a firewall in the Republican primary: Since the inception of the “First in the South” contest in 1980, the winner has gone on to win the GOP nomination in every election except 2012, when Newt Gingrich won.

Earlier in the day, Bush campaigned for local Republican candidates in Kentucky and Virginia. Ahead of his South Carolina visit, his campaign announced it had expanded its leadership team in the state by six people.

Bush is running a distant third in the Palmetto State's GOP primary, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polling. The leader is Donald Trump, a frequent Bush agitator and the national front-runner. In his remarks, Bush repeatedly encouraged the crowd to support him in the vote early next year.

He also took aim at Trump and other White House hopefuls.

"I've been really good today," said Bush toward the end of his remarks, before blasting Trump's plan to deport the nation's undocumented immigrants. "I haven't talked about him."

Actually, he had.

At the top of his speech, Bush said he wakes up each day "with joy in my heart, with excitement -- yes, Mr. Trump, with high energy." When a man asked him a question in Spanish, Bush said that being bilingual "isn't something to be frowned upon," an apparent response to Trump's criticism of Bush speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. And when a reporter asked him about Trump's record, Bush called Trump a "hypocrite."

Asked whether he would join Sen. Ted Cruz's call to defund Planned Parenthood even if it means shutting down the government, Bush responded "no."

Bush also took swipes at his Democratic opponents. He called Sen. Bernie Sanders that "crazy guy from Vermont" and mocked surprise that former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton came out against constructing the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Washington, Bush said, "first and foremost needs to be disrupted. It's broken." He criticized the intense partisanship that has seized the nation's capital and pledged to try to break the gridlock as president.

"Basically, it's like World War I ... they're in trenches, they're sending chemical weapons back and forth," he said. "No one talks. There's no trust."