The first days of the 2012 presidential campaign conjure images of posters proclaiming the revival of a classic film series: “ Godfather IV: Coming to a polling place near you!”

Like crime syndicate dons, the candidates publicly engage in the political version of polite conversation. Except for an occasional debate dust-up, they do everything they can to foster images of themselves as fine, upstanding citizens with noble visions and great aspirations for this country.

Meanwhile, well-armed “super PAC” henchmen — legally detached from the candidates, but devoted to their campaigns — engage in a vicious turf war. These hired guns count attack ads, mailers and Internet scare tactics in their character assassination arsenals.

“Super PACs” are political action committees that operate separately from each candidate’s campaign, thereby avoiding reporting requirements — and ethical questions related to taking responsibility for the political equivalent of gangland beatdowns.

Unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, these masked political hatchet men made their mark in Iowa, providing a foreshadowing of what lurks in the months between now and November.

The Sunlight Foundation reported Thursday that super PACs have already spent more than $13.1 million on attack ads in Iowa and other states that hold early caucuses or primaries. Politico reported Thursday that Restore Our Future, a Super PAC formed to support Mitt Romney, spent more than $3 million in Iowa on attack ads specifically targeted at Newt Gingrich.

The Sunlight Foundation, which keeps a running tally of Super PAC collections and spending, reports that Restore Our Future has already spent more than $4.1 million on Romney’s behalf, almost all of which paid for attack ads against Gingrich.

Despite the poetic justice inherent in Gingrich falling prey to the spawn of political vipers he nurtured during the 1980s and 1990s, the expenditure of more than $ 3 million for attack ads aimed at one candidate in a single state caucus that drew fewer than 125,000 voters bodes ill for democracy in America.

Restore Our Future now represents the norm, not the exception. On its growing list of emerging super PACs, the Sunlight Foundation notes that each of the six remaining major GOP presidential candidates — and President Obama — has super PACs working on their behalf.

The super PAC saga took an even more sinister turn Wednesday. Joining Restore Our Future, Support Our Destiny, which backs Jon Huntsman, and the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future super PACs, the Red, White and Blue Fund, which threw its support behind Rick Santorum in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, “became the latest super PAC to put off revealing its backers (in reports to the Federal Elections Commission), filing the paperwork Wednesday to change its filing schedule,” the Sunlight Foundation reported. “At least two of those groups would have had to reveal donors by now had they not made the switch.”

Without a serious nomination challenger to President Obama, smug Democratic Party operatives can’t help themselves from joining the fray. Priorities USA Action, a super PAC dedicated to the president’s re-election, reports raising $3.16 million and spending $306,000 already.

These proxy political assassins emphasize the fact that this year’s presidential contest is between political machines, not individuals. Welcome to the land of free speech, bought and paid for by anonymous corporate syndicates, and protected by Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Kennedy.