Forget mudslinging, attack ads and name-calling. The major candidates in Minneapolis’ most competitive election in a generation are playing nice.

They hesitate to use names. They tiptoe around details. The field of contenders to replace Mayor R.T. Rybak are under such pressure to appeal to a broad audience under a system in which voters will rank their first, second and third choices that they’re hesitating to point out basic policy differences with their rivals.

Some political observers find the practice worrisome, noting that busy voters rely on candidates to detail distinctions.

“Everyone’s being nice, but they’re not being honest,” said Carol Becker, a member of the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation. “You can [make distinctions] without being a jerk. I think people should know this stuff, and the campaigns should be putting this information out.”

One example is an oft-repeated statement by Council Member Betsy Hodges that she says the same thing wherever she goes. What appears to be a benign remark is actually a jab at one of her main rivals, former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, who has made several seemingly inconsistent statements during the race that have riled her campaign.

Their occasional barbs are almost imperceptible to the average citizen trying to decide how to vote in the Nov. 5 election featuring 35 candidates.

“When Council Member Hodges says that about herself, she’s very clearly — to those of us in the know — drawing a distinction between her and Mark Andrew,” said attorney Cam Winton, the only major candidate who consistently criticizes his opponents by name, especially Andrew. “But to someone who’s just tuning into this race … that citizen is not going to get it.”

Hodges also has made a number of opaque references to the “middlemen” who made money off the city’s old pension system, in a roundabout effort to criticize Andrew by putting down one of his supporters, Brian Rice. But she rarely names the behind-the-scenes lobbyist. Rice represented pension funds in a years-long dispute with the city that resulted in a successful effort led by Hodges to merge the funds with a state retirement system.

Hodges said that she is painting a picture of how she will govern and that she will not “be beholden to special interests.” She paused at length when asked why she has not spoken more directly.

“It is a ranked-choice voting environment, which is an invitation to show yourself as a candidate and as a leader … I bring a positive and distinct vision for Minneapolis to the table,” Hodges said in an interview. “Those are the things that I want people to know.”

Andrew, for his part, has occasionally criticized Hodges by name but usually refrains from making direct shots at his opponents.

In an interview last week about property taxes, Andrew noted that they had doubled and that services had gone down over eight years. He did not name Hodges, the one candidate who has served eight years on the council, until pressed for more specifics.

Mayoral candidate forums frequently do not allow for follow-up questions or candidate interactions, making the distinctions even harder to suss out.

When Winton told members of one North Side audience to vote for Andrew at their own peril, moderator Reg Chapman, a WCCO reporter, issued a warning that candidates refrain from “personal attacks.” Winton frequently has called out rivals on what he believes are inconsistencies in their records, though he often takes pains to say how much he respects their accomplishments.

‘A secret code’

Meanwhile, former City Council Member Dan Cohen has made his opposition to the Vikings stadium one of two main issues in his campaign, but he never tells constituents that Council Member Don Samuels voted for it and that other opponents, such as Andrew and Jackie Cherryhomes, praise the project as a job generator. He is friendly with those candidates and has repeatedly said at forums that any one of his opponents would make a good mayor.

The one person he criticizes in public is not running against him: Zygi Wilf, the Vikings owner whom he often slams at campaign events as a racketeer from New Jersey.

“My greatest possibility for winning support is to point out my strengths and my positions, rather than pointing fingers at what I could regard as other candidates’ weaknesses,” Cohen said.

He said most candidates will not engage in negative campaigns about their opponents because while they may pry some votes loose from their target, those votes may not necessarily go the way they want. They could just as well go to one of the many other candidates.

“That’s one of the reasons — the very practical reason — why you’re not getting the kind of sharp distinctions between candidates that you would get in an ordinary two-person campaign,” Cohen said.

Cherryhomes framed it differently, telling one audience last week that the candidates were running for the city — not against one another.

Stephanie Woodruff, a businesswoman and a member of the city’s audit committee, has pursued a similar approach. An opponent of the stadium and of a proposal to bring streetcars to Minneapolis, she touts her motto of “people over projects” at campaign events. But she generally does not tell audiences which of her rivals have supported those deals (Hodges and Samuels voted for streetcars this fall).

Woodruff took more veiled digs at a forum of American Indians last week when she said that Minneapolis doesn’t need to be the greenest city in America, a top tenet of Andrew’s platform. She did not name him.

“It’s like a secret code the candidates are using,” said Larry Jacobs, a political-science professor at the University of Minnesota who has hosted mayoral campaign forums.

“I worry that the candidates are maybe overestimating the time and the patience of voters to really sort out these subtle distinctions,” he said. “Voters, for the most part, are just too busy with their everyday lives.”