11/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America First or Palin First?

Barack Obama isn't the only candidate trying to beat John McCain: McCain is also under attack from Sarah Palin.

Palin may have started as a mere V.P. contender. But as Palin's personal ambition increasingly clashes with McCain's own belated effort to tamp down this campaign's incendiary rhetoric, "McCain-Palin 2008" is quickly morphing into "McCain 2008 (fingers crossed)-Palin 2012 (you betcha!!)."

These two were never a natural fit. They met only twice before her selection, and even conservative commentators acknowledged it was a pick based on politics, not governance. The McCain camp was clearly tantalized by Sarah Barracuda -- the tenacious folksy sensation who would rally the reluctant GOP base at last to back McCain.

But the tenacity has gotten out of hand. Crowds at their rallies are looking more and more like mob scenes, with wild claims that Obama is an Arab, a terrorist, even shouts of "Off with his head." McCain knows this is a disaster -- not only politically in that it's creating a backlash among moderate and undecided voters, but also in terms of his personal legacy and his fraying reputation as that rarest of birds, an honorable politician. You can see the dismay in his body language as he's confronted with these forces and tries to defuse them.

McCain doesn't want to go out this way. He realizes he may be in a position where his only options are lose honorably, or lose ugly -- really, really ugly.

But Sarah Palin didn't get the memo. Or, more accurately, she read the memo and then shredded it. Because Sarah Palin has no interest in toning things down. Her agenda is to supercharge the hardest core of the Republican base to ensure her own coronation as the party's nominee in 2012.

You can't miss the signs. Despite the campaign's official position that it won't launch dirty attacks over Obama's ties to his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Palin complains that she thinks it should be fair game. And, amazingly, Palin has actually started taunting McCain to show some backbone, telling a local news station that Obama has challenged McCain and that "we'll see" if McCain can return the fire. This is a really stunning development, a nonchalant dose of insubordination, and it shows that in Palin's mind she's not McCain's Number Two, but her own Number One.

The base is catching on. At McCain-Palin rallies, large chunks of the audience stream out of the venue after Palin speaks but before McCain -- the actual presidential nominee -- takes the stage. Fans holler "Sarah for President," even before the current race is over (watch Palin beam when she hears that).

And that's why friction between McCain and Palin will only worsen as McCain's defeat draws nearer. If McCain knows he'll lose (and I think he does), he'll at least want to cut the sleaziest attacks and try to salvage his reputation as a man of honor. But Palin doesn't have time to worry about the legacy of the man who plucked her from political obscurity, the man who put her in this position to begin with. No, Sarah Palin is running for president of the United States, and 2012 is right around the corner.