McCain Reverses Himself on Affirmative Action

ABC News' Teddy Davis and Kevin Kilbane Report: During a "This Week" interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos John McCain reversed himself on affirmative action and endorsed for the first time a proposed state ballot measure which would end race and gender-based affirmative action in his home state of Arizona.

"I support it," McCain declared when asked about the referendum. "I do not believe in quotas... I have not seen the details of some of these proposals. But I’ve always opposed quotas."

McCain has long opposed quotas but his new support for ending affirmative action programs which stop short of quotas puts him at odds not only with Democratic rival Barack Obama but also with the Arizona senator's own views in 1998.

Back then, when the legislature in McCain's home state of Arizona considered sending the voters a measure to end affirmative action, McCain spoke out against it calling it "divisive."

McCain's campaign does not dispute that the Arizona senator spoke out against the 1998 effort to end affirmative action in his home state.

When asked about the apparent change in position, a McCain spokesman was not able to distinguish the two measures.

"I do not have a firm enough grasp on the historical and relevant context of McCain's remark in 1998 to give you the pushback that this question deserves," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds told ABC News.

McCain's critics on the left charge that he has changed his position on affirmative action in order to shore up his support among conservatives.

"This is clearly an election-year flip flop and a pander to a skeptical right-wing base," said John Kraus, spokesman for the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. "He has put politics first on this issue. There is no other way around it."

Prior to reversing his affirmative action stance during his interview with Stephanopoulos, the ballot measure's proponent urged McCain to take a position in support of the referendum.

Ward Connerly, the affirmative action foe behind the Arizona and other state measures in Nebraska and Colorado, told ABC News last month that McCain was missing an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast with Obama.

On Sunday, at a gathering of journalists of color in Chicago,  Obama expressed disappointment that McCain has changed his position of affirmative action.  "I think in the past he had been opposed to these kinds of Ward Connerly referenda or initiatives as divisive. And I think he's right. You know, the truth of the matter is, these are not designed to solve a big problem, but they're all too often designed to drive a wedge between people, " Obama said to a question asked from an audience of journalists.

The presumptive Democratic nominee has spoken in favor of developing income-based affirmative action programs. But he also supports maintaining race-based affirmative action programs and has come out against the proposed Arizona ballot measure ending affirmative action. He has also come out against an identical measure which has qualified for the ballot in Colorado as well as one that has been proposed in Nebraska.

McCain's critics plan to argue that his new opposition to affirmative action would not only be a setback to racial minorities but also to women.

"Many of the equal opportunity programs he now supports banning," said Kraus, "are geared towards women: like recruiting more young women to go into engineering programs or making sure women owned businesses get a fair shake with government contracts. That gender part of this is often lost in much of the debate and coverage."

The proposed Arizona ballot measure endorsed by McCain reads: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin, in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting."

Here is McCain's exchange with Stephanopoulos:

STEPHANOPOULOS: "Opponents of affirmative action are trying to get a referendum on the ballot here that would do away with affirmative action. Do you support that?"

MCCAIN: "Yes, I do. I do not believe in quotas. But I have not seen the details of some of the proposals. But I've always opposed quotas."

STEPHANOPOULOS: "But the one here in Arizona you support?"

McCAIN: "I support it, yes."

ABC's Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.

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