Now comes the hard

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Now comes the hard part: winning the spin.

John Kerry made a good start of it tonight. But it is absolutely critical for his campaign and his supporters, formal and otherwise, to hit the ground running with a plan to use the grist from the debate to shape perceptions in the final weeks of the campaign.

As I said earlier, I think Kerry did himself the most good tonight simply by belying the Bush campaign’s portrayal of him as weak-willed flip-flopper.

But that positive impression could quickly dissipate if the follow-up is not effective. Some of this will involve zinging the president for misstatements he made or knocking him for other similar missteps. But what is critical is for them to burrow into the president’s performance and sift out the most damaging impressions he conveyed — ones that voters may have been troubled by while watching the debate but need to have driven home again and again over the coming week.

The key point I think, the key impression, was of a president who was out of touch. Erratic. Without a plan. In a cocoon. Unwilling to admit mistakes. Unwilling to level with himself or voters about what’s happening in Iraq. Lost.

These are broad brush of course. But I suspect these impressions are at least some of the ones that are most damaging for the president coming out of tonight.

There was an air of prickliness and entitlement about the president that Kerry’s surrogates should play up too. If you notice, one of the president’s major attacks on Kerry through the debate was his claim that Kerry’s criticism of the president’s own war policy made him unfit to be president.

That’s extraordinary — certainly a set of rules that would put Kerry in something of a bind if he followed them, no?

And that’s the best he could come up with: say I’ve made a mistake in Iraq and you’re letting down the troops.

Notice the structure of the president’s thinking: The point isn’t whether he’s made mistakes or screwed things up. But saying he has is bad.

Again, denial. Refusal to see what’s happening. Lost. Adrift.

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