WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain told a largely black and not particularly receptive audience of National Urban League members Friday that it was time for affirmative action to end.
"We should provide equal economic opportunities for all Americans, and I think Americans have rejected a quota system," he said. Silence greeted his comments at the league's convention in Orlando, Fla.
With race as a backdrop to the presidential campaign, the Arizona senator and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, have staked out opposing positions on affirmative action this week.
But a close look at their past comments shows that the two candidates have not always been as far apart on the issue as recent statements suggest.
Both have said there is still a need for programs that seek out aspiring minorities and help them advance. And both have said these special efforts should encompass youths who have faced hardships, whites as well as blacks, Latinos and Asians.
"I have a clear record of saying that I approve of helping people progress in America," McCain said Monday.
And in April, he said: "All of us are for 'affirmative action' to try to give assistance to those who need it, whether it be African American or other groups of Americans that need it."
Obama has called himself a "strong supporter of affirmative action," but he also has stressed its limits.
It must be "properly structured so that it is not just a quota," he told a meeting of minority journalists Sunday in Chicago. And it should "take into account class and hardship [to assess] whether or not a young person is deserving of opportunity."
Obama has said that his two daughters should not be given preferential treatment because of their race when they apply for college. "We have to . . . craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren't getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more," he said Sunday.
This year, affirmative action looms as a potentially significant issue in the race for the White House. Because Obama is the first African American with a real chance of being elected president, Democrats fear that the long-running dispute over affirmative action could work as a "wedge issue" for Republicans.
In the past, McCain refused to endorse measures that would have ended affirmative action in Arizona. In 1998, he described such an effort as "divisive."
On Sunday, when asked on ABC's "This Week" about a current Arizona referendum to end the practice, McCain said: "I support it. I do not believe in quotas. But I have not seen the details of some of the proposals."
Ward Connerly, a Sacramento businessman who sponsored California's ban on affirmative action, is sponsoring the Arizona initiative. It would forbid "preferential treatment" based on race in public education, state jobs and state contracts.
Connerly said his initiatives have proved popular because they mandate equal treatment without regard to race.
"We have already won in three blue states," he said, referring to California (1996), Washington (1998) and Michigan (2006).
But in an interview, Connerly said McCain is not the ideal champion for his cause, noting that the senator has opposed such measures in the past. "McCain also may not be as learned at articulating the nuances" of this issue, he said.
Some legal and political experts say affirmative action may have waned as an issue, in part because of the success of opponents such as Connerly. The courts have abolished nearly all programs that enforce "quotas," and the Supreme Court has limited the use of college admissions policies that give an extra edge to minority applicants.
"My sense is that a lot of air has gone out of this balloon," said Washington attorney Brad Berenson, a former Supreme Court clerk who worked in the Bush White House. "I don't know many people . . . still fighting vigorously over this issue. Both sides have fought to a draw."
The issue is certainly not new for Obama and Berenson. In 1990, they worked together on the Harvard Law Review. Obama had been elected editor the year before.
The editorial board was divided over affirmative action, and some objected when Berenson argued for publishing an essay by a prominent critic, Harvard law professor Charles Fried, who had served as U.S. solicitor in the Reagan administration.
"Barack was not a combatant. He played the role of mediator," Berenson recalled. Fried's essay criticizing affirmative action was published, but the editors agreed to also publish an essay by a liberal defender of the idea.
On Friday, McCain told his skeptical audience that the U.S. military was "the best equal-opportunity employer in America. . . . And I think that Colin Powell is an example of that."
But the U.S. military has relied on affirmative action to create a high-quality and racially diverse officers corps, Powell and other senior retired officers told the Supreme Court five years ago. They urged the justices to permit colleges to take race into account, and they pointed to the service academies at West Point and Annapolis as successful models of affirmative action.
The justices, in turn, cited the military's experience as one reason for upholding the limited use of affirmative action in college admissions.
Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report from Orlando.