10/13/2010 03:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Secret Donations Could Haunt 2012

Republicans, buoyed this fall by freelance groups spending secret donations on TV ads, should fear what comes next: an especially vicious GOP presidential race in 2012 fueled, ironically, by that same kind of cash.

In other words, the Swift Boaters of '04 could be back in '12 -- this time torpedoing potential Republican nominees -- while President Obama can stay safely ashore.

Hard-core conservative "independent" money, roaming the landscape for contenders to attack, could play havoc; so, too, could hidden money from the left, moving by stealth to cripple electable candidates.

"All of the infrastructure of these shadow parties will be established and in place," said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. "They'll be tempted to pick a side, pick a candidate, and get involved."

For now, the Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance have done what they were expected to do: give Republicans a huge boost -- nearly a 9-1 cash advantage in independent spending, according to Tracey.

Corporations are funneling money into trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- a fact that President Obama is noting at every campaign stop.

But the bulk of the action -- and money -- tends to involve individual, high-rolling conservative donors who stayed away from the action in 2006 and 2008.

Now they are back, and in greater numbers, according to a top campaign-finance lawyer, who declined to be named because he may advise a candidate.

There are questions about whether high rollers, secret or not, would want to get involved in GOP intramurals -- even at presidential level. "These are guys who want to be in the inner circle," said the lawyer. "If you're 'independent,' you have to stay on the outside."

No one expects Karl Rove, the hub of the wheel of independent GOP spending, to choose sides in the GOP primary early on -- let alone lead an independent campaign for or against a presidential contender.

But many of the donors -- and others -- may well feel differently. Conservative cash supporting Tea Party candidates will see no reason to rest once the congressional campaign has ended -- and the more established contenders may hope that friends will defend them.

"I could see a Mormon-Harvard-Bain Capital coalition getting out there to defend Mitt Romney even before he is attacked," said Tracey. It's a potential gold mine for an enterprising "independent" consultant. (I wouldn't be surprised if some guy with a Power Point isn't on his way to Boston even as I write.)

Still, most of the freelance -- and freewheeling -- cash will be of the attack variety, making the points that the candidate himself cannot make, or afford to be seen making.

The most infamous example is President George W. Bush. Given his own military record, he didn't dare attack Sen. John F. Kerry on that score.

That's what the Swift Boat ads were for in 2004. In 2012, there will be oceans of cash, mostly from "undisclosed" donors, available for Republicans to swift-boat each other.