Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush guaranteed he’ll win the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, even as he is trailing in the polls and remains a target of barbs from front-runner Donald Trump.

“I’m going to win South Carolina, take it to the bank,” Bush told reporters Thursday ahead of speaking to the East Cooper Republican Women’s group in Mount Pleasant.

The GOP presidential primary, the first in the South, is Feb. 20.

Bush, who is Catholic, also told the media he respects Pope Francis and what he is accomplishing in his visit to the U.S. this week, although he differs with some of the spiritual leader’s views.

Areas they don’t agree on include the death penalty, the causes of climate change and the priorities of government.

Bush said capital punishment weighed heavily on him while he was governor, but that he measured it against the sense of justice for a murder victim’s family.

“It was one of the hardest things I had to do as governor was sign death warrants and participate in the execution process,” he said, but added, “the comfort I got of having to fulfill this was in the fact that there was closure for a lot of families.”

On climate change, Bush defended the U.S. in expanding the use of fuels such as natural gas. “That creates economic vitality and lowered utility prices for the poor,” he said.

Bush spoke to about 275 people at Alhambra Hall where he mostly stuck to his standard campaign speech, advocating immigration reform, curbs on federal spending and a strong national defense. He was particularly critical of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who this week came out against the Keystone pipeline meant to carry oil from Canada to the lower U.S. He pegged her and President Barack Obama’s opposition to being in the camp of radical environmentalists.

Bush called for more oil and gas exploration and development. The availability of U.S. fuels could go a long way toward making Russia’s neighbors less susceptible, he said, to the political influence of President Vladimir Putin, who has used gas supplies as an economic weapon. “It’s freedom gas,” he said of potential U.S. inventories.

A man in the audience noted to Bush that the audience at Thursday’s event was overwhelmingly white, and that without winning over blacks and other minorities, the GOP is setting itself up for failure.

“Our message needs to be heard across the country,” said Bush. “It can’t just be in the enclaves that agree with us.” One way for the GOP to win blacks over is to stress the use of school choice, Bush said.

A Quinnipiac University national poll of likely GOP voters this week put Trump at 25 percent, ahead of Ben Carson at 17 percent and Carly Fiorina at 12 percent. Bush was fourth at 10 percent.

Bush plans to return to South Carolina next week.

Republican Nicholas Jones heard Bush speak and said he is among the five candidates he is looking at supporting. Bush stands out for his experience as a sitting governor, he added.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551