(CNN) -- Election Day is still days away, but Republicans are already caught up in a heated debate about Sarah Palin's future role in the party should the GOP ticket fail to win the White House.
Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday.
In one corner are some conservatives who believe the Alaska governor has been a detriment to John McCain's presidential bid and threatens to lead the party astray for the foreseeable future.
Another faction says Palin's core-conservative beliefs, demonstrated political acumen, and compelling frontier biography position her to reshape the face of a party now viewed by many voters as out of touch.
It's a debate, somewhat ugly at times, that is beginning to play out in public view as Republicans brace themselves for the possibility of losing the White House and a significant number of seats in Congress come Election Day. And that may leave the party in shambles with drastically reduced influence in Washington. iReport.com: Share your thoughts on Palin
Should that happen, political observers say, the party will face its biggest identity crisis in more than a generation, and Palin may well be caught squarely in the middle of it.
"A civil war that is simmering will break out into the open if McCain loses, and the party will have to decide what they want to be in the post-Reagan world," said Gloria Borger, a senior political analyst for CNN. Watch whether Palin is making a power play »
Palin, whose campaign rally crowds have been noticeably larger than McCain's, will certainly have legitimacy to run for president in four years should she want to. Some McCain operatives, claiming Palin repeatedly veers off script and often disregards the campaign's advice, already believe she is more interested in positioning herself for the future than helping the party win this year.
"She is such a compelling figure, and she has helped, without a doubt, with the Republican base," CNN Chief National Correspondent John King said. "But she's also hurting with key constituencies, like suburban women and independents, and there's a big question that, if McCain loses, does she try to emerge as the leader of the party heading into the 2012 cycle?"
Should Palin ultimately decide to launch her own presidential bid, she will face a massive headwind from an influential group of conservatives who believe the Alaska governor represents the very reasons why the Republican Party finds itself in retreat.
"She is a person of great ambition, but the question remains: What is the purpose of the ambition? She wants to rise, but what for? It's unclear whether she is Bushian or Reaganite. She doesn't think aloud. She just ... says things," conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal column.
It's an argument that has been echoed by a string of conservatives -- including David Brooks, George Will, Kathleen Parker, and David Frum -- who believe Palin exhibits a poisonous anti-intellectual instinct of the party that threatens to ultimately destroy its foundations.
"Reagan had an immense faith in the power of ideas. But there has been a counter, more populist tradition, which is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely. And I'm afraid that Sarah Palin has those prejudices," said Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times.
Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush who has written that Palin is woefully inexperienced to be president, told CNN the Alaska governor's chances might be slim in a general election matchup.
"She will face the classic problem of being a strong candidate for the nomination, but not such an appealing candidate across party lines," he said. "She has a very intense following among core Republicans, but at the same time, non-core Republicans have reached a very negative verdict."
Frum also pointed to recent polling that suggests Palin's unfavorable ratings have sharply risen in the last two months, and predicted it will be extremely difficult for her to combat a perception among many voters that she is a lightweight, ill equipped for the burdens of the presidency.
"This is a moment where people have formed impressions, they have been watching her closely and paying a lot of attention," he said. "Even if she spends the next two and a half years delivering worthy speeches at the Council on Foreign Relations, the cumulative work that she will do will be seen by fewer people than probably watched the Katie Couric interview or the Charlie Gibson interview, or the debate with Joe Biden."
But even as one corner of the party predicts dire consequences if Palin becomes the Republican standard-bearer, another is strongly behind her.
"I hope and expect that she stays involved nationally, and she can play pretty much whatever role she wants to. She's got momentum now, and I'd be surprised if she didn't play a leadership role in the party," Richard Viguerie, a prominent cultural conservative and chairman of conservativehq.com, told CNN.
Viguerie, as well as many other cultural conservatives, point to Palin's core beliefs on key issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage and say she represents a fresh face, from a different region of the country, who has the potential to reshape the conservative movement.
"Palin, as best I can describe it, exudes a kind of middle-class magnetism. It's subdued but nonetheless very powerful," Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes recently wrote. "Whether they know it or not, Republicans have a huge stake in Palin. If, after the election, they let her slip into political obscurity, they'll be making a tragic mistake."
Conservatives across the party are slated to meet in Virginia in the days after the election to discuss the future of the party and Palin's role is expected to be a topic of conversation.
"Palin will certainly be a discussion point," a conservative who will attend the meeting said. "While the Washington establishment and some of the New York academics may not like her, a lot of the country and the conservative movement's base does."
Factors out of Palin's control could ultimately control her fate.
The political landscape in 2012 may look markedly different than it does now, depending on the success of a President Obama should the Illinois senator win. Unforeseen developments in the economy and the war in Iraq will also likely have an effect on whether Palin rises to the forefront of her party in the next election cycle.
But one thing is clear: If Palin wants to mount a serious bid for her party's nomination in 2012, she has a lot of groundwork to do.
She has yet to form relationships with many key conservative groups at the local level, whose support would be instrumental in ultimately capturing the Republican presidential nomination. She knows few party chairman in the key early primary states where the race will likely be decided.
"She needs to get out there and get to know conservative leaders at the national, state, and local level," Viguerie said. "She needs to introduce herself in a way she hasn't had the opportunity to do so far."
And should McCain lose next Tuesday, the Alaska governor will have little time to take a breath.
"She would have to start the day after the election if she wants to run for president -- there is no period where the election isn't going on," Frum said.
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