Washington — An air of uncertainty now hangs over the Democratic presidential race. Party leaders and political observers are beginning to wonder whether President Carter may be stumbling so badly that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy might catch and overtake him.
A Carter win in the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday could help dispel some questions about the solidity of his bid for renomination.
But it probably will take a victory by the President in the Pennsylvania primary April 22 to give him momentum once again.
Monitor conversations with key Democrats provide this assessment of a Carter candidacy in trouble:
* Mr. Carter's primary defeats and slippage in the polls are not a true Kennedy upsurge.
They reflect a President who increasingly is being perceived by the voters as lacking competence.
Echoing what many Carter supporters are saying is the recent comment of an Auburn, Calif., voter: "I want to be for Carter. He's a fine, moral man. But he's so wishy-washy."
This does not mean that Senator Kennedy has finally come out from under his Chappaquiddick problem. It merely means that this big Kennedy negative is being obscured, perhaps just for the moment, by the President's problems.
Again and again, observers are saying: The issue is Carter's failings -- not Kennedy's strengths.
The spotlight has suddenly turned to the President.
* Mr. Carter must somehow begin to show he is in command.
He is aware of how he looks. Immediately after the New York and Connecticut defeats he is understood to have lamented: It's been a good many days since we have had any good news.
But on the eve of the Wisconsin primary the President was staring at more bad news: The claim by the Iranians that he had sent a conciliatory message -- which he has denied.
Here, however, was another question about whether the President really had a firm hand on the tiller -- whether he fully knew what is going on within his administration.
Whatever the validity of this communication, the political impact is clear: It is a reminder to voters of the President's gaffe on his UN vote, a mistake that figured heavily in his recent primary defeats.
* The President may have to junk his Rose Garden campaign policy. It appears that he may have to go ut and meet with voters and present his views directly to them if he is going to turn back the Kennedy challenge.
However, to leave the White House to campaign while the hostages are being held will doubtless pose problems for the President. His opponents will remind him of his pledge not to campaign under such circumstances.
Raising the "hostages" issue now by campaigning actively might damage the President considerably.
* The big issue undercutting Mr. Carter today clearly is inflation. Reports from Wisconsin indicate that many Democrats who were intending to vote for him will register a protest on soaring prices Tuesday by voting for Senator Kennedy.