By Alex Wilts
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Presidential contender Rick Perry urged his fellow Republicans on Thursday to work harder to win black votes, saying decades of failed Democratic economic policies had given the party a fresh opportunity to appeal to African-Americans.
Perry, the former governor of Texas, said the Republican Party's indifference to black voters threatened its moral legitimacy at a time when black voters should be looking to the party for economic help.
The comments by Perry coincided with renewed public debate about race relations in the United States after the murders of nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church.
"For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote because we found that we could win elections without it," said Perry, who lags badly in the Republican White House field, during a speech at the National Press Club.
"When we gave up on trying to win the support of African-Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln," he said. "I am here to tell you that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are truly offering black Americans the hope of a better life for themselves and their children."
Perry's position echoed that of Republican Party leaders who have reached out to black voters after Mitt Romney won only 6 percent of African-Americans in his failed 2012 presidential bid.
Perry, one of 14 Republicans who have declared their candidacy for the White House in the November 2016 election, said Democrats have long governed in African-American communities but poverty rates and other economic indicators remain worse for blacks.
Perry said he would back a bill to take the money spent on non-healthcare related anti-poverty programs and direct the funding toward an earned-income tax credit to give people more incentives to work.
"I am proud to live in a country with an African-American president. But President Obama cannot be proud of the fact that the prevalence of black poverty has actually increased under his leadership," he said.
"The specific policies advanced by the president and his allies on the left amount to little more than throwing money at the problem and walking away," Perry said.
Support for Perry, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2012, registers in the low single digits in most polls on Republican presidential contenders.
(Editing by John Whitesides and Andrew Hay)