Washington — Some clouds are beginning to appear on President Carter's political horizon. When Mr. Carter looks halfway down the road, his prospects for winning re-nomination appear quite favorable.
But when he looks all the way to the goal of reelection, the outlook is uncertain and it is likely that this difficulties will grow.
What seemed to be a nearly impossible accomplishment a few months ago -- his renomination -- now appears to be well within the reach and nearly all the signs are "go". All the polls show carter with a formidable lead over Senator Kennedy as well as over any Republican challenger who may be nominated. At this stage Carter outpolls Kennedy among Democrats and independents by 66 to 24 percent. Catholics support him by two to one and blacks support him by 58 to 32 percent in choosing between the President and the Massachusetts Senator. If the hostages are released unharmed, his support is certain to go higher.
Kennedy used to remark that he had to win in Maine to stay in the race.After losing Maine, he explained coming in second shows he is gaining strength.
There is another side to the coin and this bears on the election campaign, not the nomination campaign.
Carter has been helped immeasurably by the national instinct to rally behind the President in a time of international crisis.
But the Iranian and Afghan crises have only temporarily distracted voter attention from the deteriorating state of the economy. For just the right period as far as the President is concerned, they cover up his vulnerability on the issues which will substantially determine the election.
It seems to me that Carter is headed to renomination because the decision is being shaped where he is winning the greatest public approval -- on the hostages and on his stand to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
But these issues are not going to remain dominant indefinitely. It is possible -- I think probable -- that he will have to contest for his reelection where he has been losing popular approval -- on inflation, on mounting energy prices, on unemployment, and on the continued decline of the dollar in the world's money markets.
It is plain that the President will find it far easier to turn aside Senator Kennedy whose whole record favors big spending by government than it will be to counter the Republican challenge on both economic and foreign policy.
Almost certainly there will be mounting public backing for the newly proclaimed hard line with respect to the Soviet threat in the Middle East. But Carter will have to face a barrage of valid questions on why he came so tardily to perceive Soviet objectives and why he relied so hopefully so long on Soviet words instead of reacting to Soviet actions.
The "Carter doctrine" is an effective shield against any assault by Senator Kennedy but it will not likely be an effective shield in battle with a Republican nominee with a different record.
There is a further peril which is becoming more visible as the Carter-Kennedy battle grows more personal and more bitter. It is spreading divisiveness within Democratic ranks which at the outset both candidates affirmed they would not allow to happen.
It is happening and the central fact is that each is trying to prove that the other is unqualified to serve as president of the United States.
The Senator exclaimed to a Maine audience: "You raise your voice in the Congress, and they'll whip out old Fritz Mondale and question your patriotism. That's the kind of campaign they're running."
Mondale retorts: "That's bunk. I have never attacked Senator Kennedy's patriotism -- and he knows it."
Kennedy accuses the President of sticking to a "failed foreign policy" and charges that Carter opposed the United Nations panel proposal which now appears to be furthering the release of the hostages.
Carter retorts in a nationally televised press conference: "That is typical of what causes me the deepest concern. First of all, his statements have not been accurate and they have not been responsible, they have not helped our country."
White House aides are more vehement.
Democratic national chairman John White, who predicted that Kennedy would divide the party by trying to unseat a Democratic president and thus throw the election into the arms of the Republicans, is wringing his hands at what he is now witnessing.
His fear is that by denigrating each other so totally they may well persuade the voters that they are both right.