DES MOINES -- Even though Senator Hillary Clinton was supposed to sound neutral in her remarks about Democratic candidates here Saturday night, some guests in the audience thought they heard a pointed jab at Howard B. Dean.
"We have to do more than criticize," Clinton said during her keynote address at the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. "We have to stand for the best values of the Democratic Party. We have to have a vision of where we want to lead this country."
Clinton did not mention Dean by name, nor did the other candidates, who are struggling to stop the former Vermont governor from sailing straight through to the nomination.
But a clear theme is emerging from some corners of the Democratic establishment, that the angry rhetoric that is Dean's trademark cannot win in a general election.
Several of Dean's rivals hope to turn that argument into a political strategy, portraying themselves as the sunny alternative. Senators John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina hammered that point hard over the weekend, with Kerry calling for "answers, not just anger," and Edwards warning that "if we are the party of anger in 2004, we will not win."
"I think Democrats have been very angry with George Bush, and I share that anger," Edwards said in an interview yesterday. "But the closer we get to the primaries and the general election, the more voters are going to look for a president, rather than a vehicle to direct their anger through."
Edwards also said the election calendar is making a difference in favor of candidates who aren't angry. "There's a dramatic difference from six to eight months ago and now," he said. "Back then, they [voters] were very focused on their fury toward George Bush. Now they're transitioning to, `What are we going to do?' "
Several Dean supporters at the dinner in Des Moines said that they were drawn to the former governor at first because of his willingness to attack Bush but that their support has grown over time as they have listened to his platform. Senior advisers to Dean also insist his appeal has to do with the candidate's overall approach, of which anger is only a part.
"They don't understand our campaign," said Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager. "No one who comes to see Howard Dean walks away angry; they walk away hopeful."
Of the criticism, he said, "It's another nice little rap these guys are putting on, but that's just what it is, a rap."
In truth, Dean in his stump speech blends angry attacks on Bush with specific proposals for what he would do in office. While he skewers the administration's $1.3 trillion tax cut, he also lays out his alternative, which is to roll the entire thing back. At the same time, Dean repeatedly tells supporters that they have the power to address problems facing the country, a message that is arguably rather positive.
But Dean clearly was among the first to use Democratic fury against Bush to his advantage, and it is not difficult to portray his rhetorical style -- blunt, quick, sometimes defensive -- as more negative than some of his opponents'.
Thus, having failed to figure out what will derail Dean so far, his rivals appear to have concluded that it will be easier to criticize his feisty style than to try to copy it, as Kerry attempted to do, with little success, earlier this year.
"I think this way is absolutely the right way to go," said Leo Bourneuf, 41, a Kerry supporter who drove from Chicago to attend the event. "Dean really appealed to the angry part of the electorate, but that anger can't win, because the people who are going to decide this election aren't the angry voters. They're the worried voters, worried about the economy and Iraq."
Bourneuf interpreted Clinton's comments as proof that she agrees that Kerry and others are on the right track with a positive message. Her words, he said, were a "subtle message from the Democratic leadership that Dean can't beat Bush."
That was essentially Kerry's signature line in his speech, part of a broader effort to relaunch his struggling campaign after weeks of turmoil.
"We need to offer answers, not just anger," Kerry said. "We need to offer solutions, not just slogans. So Iowa, don't just send them a message next January. Send them a president. We need to send somebody who can do the job."
Edwards's message was virtually identical. "Anger won't change America; action will," he said. "If we are the party of anger in 2004, we will not win. But if we transform that anger into a positive vision for America, we will win in 2004."
Dean backers were outraged at the suggestion that Clinton and other party members would try to gang up on their candidate. Some -- such as Mark Takano, 42, of Riverside, Calif. -- even booed when Clinton made the comment, which he also immediately took as an attack on Dean.
"I interpreted it as a dig," Takano said, "that Hillary was trying to send a message to Dean." As to Kerry, he said, "My reaction was, `Come on, that's ridiculous.' "
Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said he did not regard Clinton's comment as a direct attack on Dean but rather "a warning to all candidates to quit trying to throw stones and destroy each other and go after President Bush."
He also echoed the belief of other advisers that it will be impossible for the candidates to avoid being critical of each other or of sounding negative toward Bush entirely, as the campaign moves ahead.
"You have to be positive, but you can't let the other person punch your lights out," he said. "You've got to hit back. A charge that goes unanswered becomes the truth."