Mitt Romney's repeated flip-flopping may have cast doubt on his frontrunner status in the GOP presidential field, but when it comes to raking in campaign cash, he's way, way ahead of the pack.

According to his campaign, Romney raised $18.25 million in April, May, and June—more than all the other GOP presidential contenders combined. (Rep. Michele Bachmann has not yet disclosed her fundraising haul for the 2011 second quarter.) More than half of Romney's contributions came from a single national phone fundraiser in May. Unlike former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and tea party favorite Herman Cain, Romney's campaign says he didn't contribute a dime to his latest fundraising total. In a statement, Romney's campaign said his haul is evidence that voters are buying his more moderate, jobs-centric message.

While Romney's numbers easily trump his competitors', he trails his own fundraising totals from his first presidential bid four years ago. In the first three months of 2007, Romney had already raked in $23.5 million, $2.5 million of which was his own money.

This time around, it's not just Romney's campaign that's pulling in big bucks. A super PAC run by former aides to Romney, called Restore Our Future, announced recently that it had bagged $12 million in the first half of 2011. Groups like this one can accept unlimited donations from individuals, unions, and corporations, but must disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission. The only other presidential candidate with a similarly aligned super PAC is President Obama; earlier this year, former Obama White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney started Priorities USA Action, which is devoted to pushing back against Republican outside spending groups and supporting the president.

The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps marches on the parade field at the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute held in honor of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon, June 30, 2011. DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey

A top Congressional Democrat, joined by two leading campaign finance reform groups here in Washington, has raised the ante on his demand that a federal court close a gaping loophole in the nation's laws against dark money in politics. In April, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and two campaign finance groups announced that they were filing suit against the Federal Election Commission, after more than 90 percent of the funders behind election ads went unnamed in the 2010 elections. On Tuesday, they submitted a new brief and asked the judge to consider the challenge with haste.

The legal challenge zeroes in on a decision made by the FEC, the nation's underwhelming watchdog for campaign finance, that dramatically undercut federal disclosure requirements for what are called "electioneering" advertisements—ads that outright support or oppose a candidate. Here's what happened in a nutshell: In 2007, the FEC essentially told corporations and labor unions that unless donors said outright that they wanted their money to fund electioneering ads, those donors could stay secret—disclosure rules be damned. The decision flew in the face of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law of 2002, which said that any union or corporation funding electioneering ads must reveal all contributors of $1,000 or more.

The FEC's decision quickly became the loophole that ate the rule. According to Tara Malloy, associate counsel at the pro-reform Campaign Legal Center, "In 2010, groups making electioneering communications disclosed the funders of less than 10 percent of the $79.9 million spent on electioneering communications."

Van Hollen's suit essentially argues that by creating this crater-sized disclosure loophole, the FEC overstepped its bounds and the limits of what it can and can't do. Now Van Hollen and the reformers have filed a motion for summary judgment in the suit. "The disclosure loophole opened by the FEC has already allowed millions of secret dollars to influence our elections and the anonymous spending is only likely to increase in 2012," Malloy said. "But the American people deserve to have disclosure about the sources of the money being spent by corporations and other special interest groups to buy influence over government decisions."

Obama or GOP: Who Has the Edge in Debt Fight?

My perceptive pals at NBC News' First Read have a good take on the current state of play in the debt ceiling show-down: 

*** Who’s got the leverage? So who's got the leverage in the debt-limit talks? Leverage depends on who the negotiators are answering to. For instance, the White House believes it has the most leverage because swing voters and independent voters simply want a deal done. They are exhausted from the Washington political games, the gridlock, the inability to solve problems. (By the way, this Congress is on pace to be one of the least productive in history.) GOP leaders think THEY have the leverage, because there are NO cracks in the base and they have their own polling showing that, while independents are turned off by the process, they do NOT want taxes raised and want to see government cut. Bottom line: Republicans believe that on the SUBSTANCE, the middle is with them (if they sell it properly), even if on PROCESS, the middle might be more on the side of the president. (Of course, there's a reason the president uses the phrase "balanced approach" all the time; it's their argument on substance). President Obama is expected to engage in talks Wednesday either on Capitol Hill or at the White House, but will it be with Republican leaders as well? That's in question.

*** Victory is in the eye of the voter: It also looks like Republicans don’t want to hand President Obama something that looks like a victory, in a presidential election cycle; that would cause the base to erupt even more than a perceived tax hike. The GOP, though, can already be granted a measure of victory for dictating the terms of the debate – all about spending cuts. But will that be enough for the base? Senate Republicans are open to the idea of a short-term deal (something really no one wants) with some revenue raisers, like eliminating ethanol subsidies. But House Republicans don’t want more than one vote before the end of 2012 and know they have dwindling capital with their Tea Party freshmen.

That's a fine analysis. But President Barack Obama has not yet resorted to one piece of potentially potent ammo: the charge that the GOPs are super-crazy, reckless ideologues willing to risk destroying the economy to protect their beloved tax breaks for the rich. He certainly has sort of made that point in a self-described "restrained" fashion. But the president hasn't truly unloaded on the opposition. He usually doesn't. He'd rather take the high and responsible road and work out a deal. So there's no expectation he will slam the Rs in such a manner now. But were he to do so, would that change any of the handicapping?

Fate of Kansas Clinics Still Unclear

Despite the efforts of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to shut down all abortion providers in the state, a judge blocked the new, highly restrictive regulations for abortion clinics from going into effect on Friday. The temporary injunction has allowed all three of the state's abortion clinics to remain open for now, at least while they await another day in court.

"I don't know if this is a short-lived victory or a long-lived one," Jeff Pederson, the manager at Kansas City's Aid for Women, told Mother Jones. He was not sure when the clinic's lawyers would be back in court to seek a complete suspension of the new rules.

The health department, however, indicated that it still intends to move forward with its new licensing plan for abortion clinics. The regulations that were supposed to go into effect on July 1 were only temporary, to be in place for 120 days. The department had issued them as a short-term response to the measure that Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed into law in May. The department is supposed to have a permanent licensing plan in place by October, which is expected to include similar regulations. Via the Topeka Capitol-Journal:

Robert Moser, secretary of health and environment and a Brownback appointee, said his department respected the ruling and would "follow the law."

But Moser added: "Judge Murguia’s ruling is narrowly tailored and does not prevent KDHE from moving forward to establish permanent licensing regulations."

The department said in a press release on Thursday that it will hold a public hearing on the permanent rules on September 7 in Topeka.

The clinics may have won the first round, this latest battle in the never-ending abortion wars is far from over.

GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, said to have raised as much as $20 million in the past three months, just can't get his story straight. On multiple occasions, the former Massachusetts governor has claimed that President Obama made the Great Recession "worse" with his economic policies. As Romney put it on the day he officially unveiled his candidacy, "When [Obama] took office, the economy was in recession, and he made it worse, and he made it last longer."

Except that's nowhere near true. As Washington Post "Fact-Checker" Glenn Kessler notes, the National Bureau of Economic Research declared the recession officially over in June 2009, six months after Obama took office. So, then, how can Obama have made the recession "worse" and "last longer"? After vetting Romney's argument, the Associated Press concluded, "Obama did not, as Romney alleged, make the economy worse than it was when he took office."

Last week, when questioned by a reporter on this point, Romney didn't defend his assertions or trot out economic data to prove them; instead, he claimed he'd never said such a thing. "I didn't say that things are worse," he said. "What I said was that the economy hasn't turned around." In fact he'd said exactly that on at least three prior occasions.

Now, Romney has flipped again. Asked by a local reporter in Amherst, New Hampshire, about his prior claims about Obama and the economy, Romney reverted to his original, debunked position. "The recession was made deeper and more painful for more Americans by virtue of the president's plan," Romney said. "The recovery has been slower and more painful for millions of Americans because of the president's failures. He made the recession worse and the recovery more anemic." Here's the video:

Romney, of course, is running as the GOP candidate best suited to fix the ailing American economy. Perhaps he'd better fix his talking points first.

Michele Bachmann's Redistricting Whopper

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)

In successive weeks, GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has been the subject of fawning profiles in the nation’s two most influential conservative political magazines, the Weekly Standard and the National Review (subscription required). The stories, which lean heavily on interviews with the congresswoman, are revealing in that they more or less present Bachmann's life story as she'd like to portray it—her political conversion after reading Gore Vidal's Burr, her travels in Israel, her unexpected entry into state politics. And her perpetual underdog status: Both stories report that Bachmann had so riled up Minnesota Democrats that, when they drew up new state senate districts in 2002, she was their top target. Here's the Standard's Matthew Continetti:

Bachmann won the state senate seat in November 2000. The question was how long she'd be able to keep the office. Redistricting forced her to run against a 10-year Democratic incumbent, Jane Krentz, in 2002. A committee chairman, Krentz had the support of environmental and women's groups. The Democrats who controlled the state senate had created the new district with her in mind.

National Review's Robert Costa says much the same thing: "Minnesota pols tried to shoo her out of office during the 2002 redistricting process."

You can see why this is an appealing narrative for Bachmann. In her telling, she was exposed early in her career to the ruthless Democratic political machine. Why? Because liberals are afraid of her. This isn't the first time she's parroted this line, either. In 2006, when she was seeking the GOP nomination for her first congressional campaign, she sent out a video stating that she was "the number one target of Minnesota senate Democrats" who "redistricted me out of my Senate seat so I had to run in a completely new district against a 10-year [Democratic] female incumbent." 

But that isn't what happened. At all.

Hannah Maher makes a rubbing of the memorial stone honoring her dad, Sgt. Brent Maher, following the Victory Park Ceremony June 29 at Fort Riley. Sgt. Maher was one of 22 Soldiers who died while serving with the division in Iraq or Afghanistan during the past 18 months honored during the ceremony. Photo by Mollie Miller, 1st Infantry Division Public Affairs

Last Vietnam Draftee Finally Leaving Army (VIDEO)

This summer, the US military will finally become an all-volunteer force.

Sure, technically, America's armed forces have been considered voluntary since the draft was abolished back in 1973. But Command Sgt. Major Jeffrey Mellinger puts the lie to that: He is the last Vietnam-era draftee still serving in the military these many decades later. That will change in a few months, when he retires from the Army after 39 years in uniform.

"Draftees are pretty maligned over time," he told the AP, "but the fact is they are part of every branch of service up to 1973, and when you look at what those military branches accomplished over time, I'll let the record speak for itself." The Army obviously life agreed with Mellinger, whose face is ubiquitous in military public affairs photos. In 2007-8, he served as David Petraeus' senior enlisted adviser with the US coalition in Baghdad, and he recently served a similar role in Afghanistan.

But Mellinger's high-profile successes and enthusiasm for regimentation weren't experiences common to many US conscripts. And in recent years, between stop-loss orders, multiple deployments, and the plucking of reservists and guardsmen for active duty, many "volunteer" service members have had to make big involuntary sacrifices reminiscent of the lottery days. These sacrifices have fallen disproportionately on less affluent Americans who are more likely to volunteer for service. They've also contributed to a yawning gap in civil-military relations, which is why Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y., and himself no great advertisement for upright selfless sacrifice) keeps trying to revive the draft every year.

Strange, isn't it? Left-leaning politicians now seeing social benefits in reviving a government practice whose abolishment was once the raison d'etre of the left? But Rangel's not alone in thinking that an equally applied service requirement could make Americans more circumspect about the use of force in general. It could be an interesting fix for continued unemployment, too. Mellinger recalled his own experience after getting an induction letter from Uncle Sam:

Mellinger told the draft board there was a mistake.

"I...told them I don't need to go into the Army, I've got a job," said Mellinger, who hung drywall for a living. "They just kind of laughed."

What do you think? Could a 21st century draft bring about a more humane, civic-minded American electorate, or would it just provide a new heavy-duty outlet for Jingoism™? Drop us a line in the comments. And in the meantime, hear Mellinger in his own words:

Kansas Judge Blocks Abortion Clinic Regs

A judge in Kansas has blocked the state's strict new regulations on abortion providers from taking effect, a move that will allow all three clinics in the state to continue offering services, the Kansas City Star reports.

On Friday afternoon, U.S District Judge Carlos Murguia granted a request from two clinics—Aid for Women in Kansas City and the Center for Women's Health in Overland Park—to grant temporary relief from the new rules, which took effect July 1. The clinics were denied a license to continue operating after the state issued new rules on June 17 that would have required both clinics to make major changes to their facilities. A third clinic, owned by Planned Parenthood, was granted a license to continue operating on Thursday.

The injunction will remain in place until the court hears the formal challenge to the state's regulations.

"This is a tremendous victory for women in Kansas and against the underhanded efforts of anti-choice politicians to shut down abortion providers in the state," said Center for Reproductive Rights president Nancy Northup, which joined with the clinics in filing the legal challenge to the law, in a statement Friday evening. "The facts were clear—this licensing process had absolutely nothing to do with patient health or safety and everything to do with political shenanigans."

The Kansas legislature passed a new law in April creating a new designation for abortion providers under the state's licensing system, and directed the Department of Health and Environment to issue new rules. The department issued 36-pages of rules on June 17 (though the clinics did not receive copies until June 20), mandating things like the size of waiting and recovery rooms, the number of bathrooms, and the required temperatures for each room in the facility. Clinic owners argued that it was impossible to meet the new standards, given that they were released just two weeks before the clinics were required to comply. Moreover, they argued, the rules had little to do with protecting patients and were designed to shut down the clinics.

This type of law, often called "targeted regulation of abortion providers," or "TRAP" laws, isn't exactly new or unique, but Kansas' would have gone farther than others in actually shutting down abortion providers.