By STEVE KRASKE - Political Correspondent
Since when is making a campaign contribution to a candidate different than actually endorsing the candidate?
When Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver is the donor, and U.S. Senate candidate Jay Nixon is the receiver.
On Tuesday, Cleaver issued a $200 check to Nixon, who also is Missouri's attorney general. On Wednesday, the mayor made it clear that his act of financial stewardship was not the same as endorsing the likely Democratic candidate in his expected match-up this fall against the Republican incumbent, Sen. Kit Bond.
On the contrary.
As he has in the past, Cleaver gushed about Bond, a friend and a senator who, in Cleaver's estimation, has done loads of good things for Kansas City.
"I've had no experiences with Jay Nixon at all. None," Cleaver said. Well, maybe three meetings, he hedged, but "none more than an hour."
So what about the $200 check?
This, said Cleaver, was nothing more than an obligation, a duty. Cleaver, a lifelong Democrat and a member of the Democratic National Committee, was fulfilling his party responsibility. No more.
"I am a strong member of the Democratic Party, and this is a sign of that connection," Cleaver said.
He also noted that he has been under more than a little pressure from Democrats in Washington, including President Clinton, to get on board with Nixon. So far Cleaver has been neutral.
The $200 check may get some of those folks off his back, the mayor reasoned.
He noted that Freedom Inc., the black political club, had not endorsed Nixon.
"It would be incorrect to assume that I am breaking with Freedom or planning to endorse Jay Nixon or anything else," he said.
Gaining Cleaver's outright endorsement would be a major coup for Nixon. The Democrat has struggled mightily -- and mostly in vain -- to gain the backing of black Democratic leaders throughout the state. Those leaders are concerned, and in many cases bitter, over his handling of school desegregation cases here and in St. Louis that will wind up pulling tens of millions of dollars in state aid out of inner-city districts.
Although Nixon has spent months attempting to make inroads with black voters, a significant portion of the Democratic base, Cleaver said he had detected no movement toward the Democrat.
"Jay Nixon is going to have to work extremely hard and even then I don't know how successful he will be to get the African-American vote," Cleaver said.
Take Cleaver's wife, Dianne, for example. According to the mayor, she's not on board with Nixon.
And it's for that reason that Cleaver sent his $200 contribution in the form of a money order. He and his wife have a joint checking account, the mayor explained. And Dianne Cleaver did not feel obligated to make the same sort of symbolic gesture to bolster her Democratic credentials.
On Wednesday, the Nixon camp was boasting about Cleaver's contribution, faxing a copy of the check to a reporter.
"This is significant," said Nixon aide Chuck Hatfield.
But he was careful not to claim that the donation was anything more than it was. He also did not contend it would begin to turn the tide with black voters. Rather, he cited developments such as the failing grade recently given to Bond by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a sign that Nixon was gaining support with African-Americans.
Cleaver brushed off Bond's poor rating by the NAACP. Some disagreements are only natural.
"He is my friend, and you don't go against your friends," Cleaver said of Bond.
And Bond's camp certainly sounds friendly. "Mayor Cleaver has assured us that he's not endorsing Jay Nixon and that he is very supportive of Senator Bond and his candidacy for re-election," said spokesman David Israelite.
Hatfield shrugs off any subtleties accompanying Cleaver's check.
"They sent me the check. I'm just glad to get it," Hatfield said. "He is finally supporting our candidacy."