McCain was asked specifically Sunday whether he supported an effort to get a referendum on the ballot in Arizona that would "do away with affirmative action."
"Yes, I do," said McCain in an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
The Republican senator quickly added that he had not seen the details of the proposal. "But I've always opposed quotas."
In 1998, a resolution pending in the state Legislature would ask Arizona voters to eliminate most preferences based on race, gender, color or ethnic origin. McCain warned against using ballot proposals to outlaw quotas or racial preferences.
"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 said.
The 1998 story by the Associated Press said McCain was speaking to a handful of Hispanic leaders in Washington. In his comments, he stopped short of directly criticizing the resolution pending in Arizona.
For the current effort in Arizona, supporters of the state constitutional amendment banning affirmative action programs have met the filing deadline to get the measure on the November ballot.
The Arizona Civil Rights Initiative filed 334,658 signatures with the Secretary of State's office Thursday, surpassing the necessary number by more than 100,000. State officials are trying to verify that enough signatures are valid to get the initiative on the ballot.
The application for the referendum petition said the proposal would amend the state constitution to prohibit preferential treatment or discrimination by state government, state universities, school districts, counties and local governments to any individual based on race, sex, ethnicity or national origin.