(CNN) -- Both John McCain and Barack Obama say equal opportunity should not be based on quotas, but neither side has said how to reach equality without them.
John McCain's comments on affirmative action led Obama to charge that he "flipped" his position.
Obama accused McCain on Sunday of flip-flopping on affirmative action after McCain said he supports a measure in Arizona that would dismantle race- and gender-based preference programs.
Obama pointed to McCain's past opposition to similar proposals, like one in Arizona in 1998 that McCain called "divisive."
But McCain didn't say at the time that he opposed the measure.
In an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC's "This Week," host George Stephanopoulos asked McCain if he supports a referendum on the ballot in Arizona "that would do away with affirmative action."
McCain said he backed the measure, which is described by supporters as something that will give "the people of Arizona the opportunity to end preferential treatment based on race, sex, ethnicity or national origin by state or local governments."
McCain said he had not seen the details of the proposal, "but I've always opposed quotas."
Obama on Sunday said equal opportunity can't be achieved by quotas alone, but must also factor in other variables.
"I am a strong supporter of affirmative action when properly structured so that it is not just a quota, but it is acknowledging and taking into account some of the hardships and difficulties that communities of color may have experienced, continue to experience, and it also speaks to the value of diversity in all walks of American life," he said before a conference of minority journalists.
"We are becoming a more diverse culture and it's something that has to be acknowledged."
Obama said he does not see affirmative action as a long-term solution to the country's race problems.
"If you've got 50 percent of African-American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn't really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action. Those kids are not getting into college," he said.
Obama said he agreed with McCain's comments from 10 years ago when he described certain initiatives to do away with affirmative action as divisive.
"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," he said.
Obama said he was "disappointed ... that John McCain flipped and changed his position."
Civil rights leader Al Sharpton, a prominent Obama supporter, issued a statement accusing McCain of having made "a stunning reversal on his respectable record on affirmative action."
But 10 years ago, McCain stopped short of directly speaking out against the pending resolution, according to The Associated Press.
"Rather than engage in divisive ballot initiatives, we must have a dialogue and cooperation and mutual efforts together to provide for every child in America to fulfill their expectations," McCain told Hispanic business leaders, AP reported.
McCain's campaign on Sunday reiterated his opposition to quotas in a statement to CNN.
"John McCain has always been opposed to government-mandated hiring quotas, because he believes that regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, the law should be equally applied. He has long stood for the protection of civil rights and equal opportunity for all Americans," spokesman Tucker Bounds said.
Affirmative action is not an issue that has been frequently addressed on the campaign trail.
Asked in April about his stance on affirmative action, McCain said, "it's in the eye of the beholder."
"If you're talking about assuring equal and fair opportunity for all Americans and making sure that the practices of the United States military are emulated, the greatest equal opportunity employer in America, then I'm all for it.
"If you're talking about quotas, then I'm not for it. So 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," he said in Youngstown, Ohio.
Copyright 2008 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.
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