Former Florida Governor and republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks to voters at the Heritage Action Presidential Candidate Forum in Greenville, South Carolina, Sept. 18, 2015
Sean Rayford—Getty Images
September 25, 2015 8:14 AM EDT

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said late Thursday that he can improve on the Republican Party’s poor performance among African-American voters with a positive message, instead of offering “free stuff.”

The remarks in South Carolina, first reported by the Washington Post, echoed comments made by Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential campaign, and threatened to fuel criticism that Republicans are writing off black voters’ support for Democrats as as little more than payback for entitlement programs.

“Our message is one of hope and aspiration,” Bush said when asked by someone in a mostly white audience how he would attract black voters. “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.”

Bush, an establishment favorite for the GOP nomination, has struggled at a time that polls show Republican voters prefer a political outsider.

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