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First thoughts: Here comes the Afghanistan debate

McChrystal profile in Rolling Stone is likely to spark another Washington crisis for the White House – over Afghanistan… McChrystal apologizes… Four questions to ponder about the profile… Breaking down today's Super Runoff Tuesday contests… Polls close in South Carolina at 7:00 pm ET, in North Carolina at 7:30 pm ET, and in Utah at 10:00 pm ET… Orszag to step down as OMB director in July… Team McCain's hit on J.D. Hayworth… And Mark Kirk and Sharron Angle run away from the press.

*** Here comes the Afghanistan debate: Just as the Obama White House was getting the tiniest bit of breathing room on the Gulf spill -- the criticisms it has received have died down since last week -- it's now facing another potential Washington crisis: the war in Afghanistan. A Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal could very well ignite a debate that was bound to explode, sooner or later. In this Rolling Stone profile, an anonymous McChrystal aide describes Obama as not being engaged; an aide calls national security adviser James Jones "a clown": an aide refers to Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke as a "wounded animal" who is "dangerous"; and McChrystal criticizes U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry ("Here's one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so'"). What's more, McChrystal also takes a swipe at Vice President Biden in the profile. ("Are you asking about Vice President Biden? Who's that?").

*** McChrystal's apology and return home: The irony here is that McChrystal has received almost everything he has wanted from the Obama White House. And this is the repayment? Especially over a war that's not viewed all that favorably by the president's base? McChrystal has offered this apology: "I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened… I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war, and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome." A senior administration official tells NBC's Savannah Guthrie that McChrystal has been ordered to appear at tomorrow's monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan in person in the situation room -- rather via teleconference -- where he will have to explain to the Pentagon and the commander-in-chief his quotes in the piece about his colleagues.

*** Some questions to ponder: Here are additional questions we have. Does President Obama fire McChrystal, or does the general end up resigning? (Remember that Obama already dismissed the original top commander in Afghanistan.) Does this turn Afghanistan into a political football? (Who will be the first to use the criticisms aired in the Rolling Stone profile against the White House or the president personally?) Does this incident re-open other past McChrystal controversies (like his handling of the Pat Tillman investigation)? And finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- does it give us additional evidence of how the war in Afghanistan is going? (It's doubtful this kind of story would surface if the war was going well.)

*** Super Runoff Tuesday -- five stories to watch: Today, there are runoff contests in Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah (Utah's races are technically primaries, but because they feature the top-two finishers from last month's party conventions, they're essentially run-offs). Here are five storylines to watch. One, will Nikki Haley win South Carolina's gubernatorial runoff? (If she becomes the next governor, she could play an important king-/queeen-making role in this important presidential-nominating state.) Two, is the GOP going to add some diversity? (Wins by Haley, an Indian American, and Tim Scott, an African American, in the congressional runoff would give the GOP some diversity in a state not known for it, especially on the Republican side; Scott is running against Strom Thurmond's son, Paul.) Three, who will likely be Sen. Bob Bennett's successor in Utah? (Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee are competing for that honor.) Four, who will face GOP Sen. Richard Burr in the fall? (Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham are facing off here; remember, no senator holding THIS particular NC SEN seat has successfully won re-election since 1974!) And five, are we going to see another incumbent go down to defeat? (South Carolina GOP Rep. Bob Inglis is the underdog in the runoff for his congressional seat.)

*** 'Who Knows?' Tuesday: The Cook Political Report's Jennifer Duffy is dubbing today's run-offs as "Who Knows?" Tuesday. The reason: While Haley, Bridgewater, and Marshall are considered either strong favorites (in Haley's case) or slight favorites (for Bridgewater and Marshall), run-offs are very unpredictable -- as we found out in Arkansas earlier this month when Blanche Lincoln beat Bill Halter. Duffy makes another point: "If Bridgewater does win the primary, it does say that Bennett's endorsement [of Bridgewater] was hardly the kiss of death, and just reinforces that Bennett's defeat at the convention was at the hands of Tea Party types who don't represent a majority of Republican voters." Polls close in South Carolina at 7:00 pm ET, in North Carolina at 7:30 pm ET, and in Utah at 10:00 pm ET.

*** Dangerously close to a trend: Here's one question to consider on this runoff day: If both Inglis and Gresham Barrett (who is running against Nikki Haley) lose, how much would their pro-TARP votes and their status as members of Congress be to blame. Remember, not only have we seen incumbents already lose their primaries (Bennett in UT, Mollohan in WV, Specter in PA, and Griffith in AL), we've also seen senators and members of Congress running for higher office lose (Kay Bailey Hutchison in TX and Artur Davis in AL). So memo to John Kasich, Pete Hoekstra and Nathan Deal: It's not a great environment to be a congressman or ex-congressman running for governor in this political climate.

*** Orszag's departure: Last night, NBC confirmed the news that OMB Director Peter Oszag will step down from his post next month. This would make Orszag the first cabinet-level appointee to depart. He leaves with a good reputation for his actual work in office, but a mixed reputation for how he allowed his personal life to become tabloid fodder.

*** Obama today: At 11:15 am ET, President Obama attends a meeting with health insurers and state insurance commissioners. The New York Times says Obama "plans to sternly warn industry executives at a White House meeting on Tuesday against imposing hefty rate increases in anticipation of tightening regulation under the new law." At 3:15 pm, he meets with Defense Secretary Gates (closed to the press), and then delivers remarks at an LGBT event at the White House at 6:00 pm.

*** Team McCain hits Hayworth: In Arizona's GOP Senate primary, John McCain's campaign delivered a blow to J.D. Hayworth, distributing a 2007 video of Hayworth as an infomercial pitchman. Per Talking Points Memo, "In 2007, shortly after Hayworth lost his re-election battle in 2006, Hayworth appeared in a half-hour infomercial for the National Grants Conferences, a program set up by a company called Proven Methods Seminars, which advertises itself as running seminars in which people can find out how to get grant money from the federal government -- which the infomercial's on-screen text pitched as being 'FREE MONEY' in quotes." Ouch.

*** I ran, I ran so far away…: Here's another trend we're spotting: High-profile Senate candidates who are facing questions about their records are running away from the press -- literally. Here's how Crain's Chicago Business covered GOP Illinois Senate nominee Mark Kirk yesterday: "Mr. Kirk literally ran out the hotel door rather than answer questions about a host of recent reports that he repeatedly has exaggerated his experience and credentials." And in Nevada, a local NBC affiliate essentially begged -- on air -- for GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle to answer its questions in an interview. "We publicl nowy ask Sharron Angle for an interview to discuss the issues that she is running on and why she believes that she would be make the best senator for Nevada," the news anchor said.

*** Haven't gotten enough of political TV ads? Be sure to check out msnbc.com's new application to view the hottest TV ads this midterm season -- PoliticalAds.msnbc.com

Countdown to AL run-off: 21 days
Countdown to GA primary: 28 days
Countdown to OK primary: 35 days
Countdown to KS and MO primaries: 42 days
Countdown to CO and CT primaries: 49 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 133 days

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