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Salmond bested Darling but faces race against time to win voters Stephen Daisley

STV's referendum reporter Stephen Daisley considers fall-out from the second referendum TV clash.

Salmond: Winner of TV debate.
Salmond: Winner of TV debate.

We join this movie at its climax.

Our hero and his nemesis -- we leave you to decide which is which -- have just duked it out in a fast-paced, stylishly edited fight scene and return, bloody-faced and scraped-knuckled, to their respective lairs.

A power-pop montage with 80s synthesisers as they pound steps, leap over walls, and thump punching bags, training for the impending final showdown.

Cut to the clockface on the bomb: It's still ticking, and fast approaching zero.

The music picks up. The camera closes in on the war-beaten faces of our leads; steely determination gleams in their eyes. Who will get there quickly enough to cut the red wire? It's a race against time.

That is the situation facing Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling. The First Minister dominated most of the second televised debate against the head of the No campaign. He was confident, engaging, assertive, and utterly merciless in his assault on Darling. A sharper contrast to his sluggish turn in the first debate would be hard to imagine. Here was a rare sequel where an A-list performer replaced a lesser actor.

This was the Alex Salmond of two stonking election victories. The booming-voiced vanquisher of every foe at First Minister's Questions. The pitch-perfect populist with an uncanny knack for being offended on behalf of every last person in Scotland. If your vote on September 18 will be influenced by strength, confidence, and leadership, Salmond hit the trifecta last night.

Darling, by contrast, was hesitant, stammering, and equally unrecognisable from his first debate performance. He radiated all the emotional appeal of a toaster and at times the audience seemed sincerely hostile towards him. One felt he could have promised to make chocolate taste twice as good at half the fat content and still have been heckled.

The snap Guardian/ICM poll afterwards handed a blockbuster blow-out to the Nationalist leader. Seventy-one per cent deemed him the winner compared to just 29% for his Labour MP opponent. This was a far more resounding triumph than Darling's 56% to 44% defeat of Salmond in the August 5 STV debate.

What was the No Thanks campaign chief's worst moment? There are almost too many to choose from but his mishandling of his trump card - currency - stood out.

Darling's statement that an independent Scotland could use the pound will be press released by the Yes campaign from now until polling day. His broader point, that to do so without a currency union would leave an independent Scotland with no control over its interest rates and no lender of last resort, will be left off the poster quotes.

Watch the key exchange on currency

If Salmond has neutralised the currency issue - his weakest point - it will be thanks to an unforced error by Darling, one the former Chancellor may come sorely to regret. His frustration will only be magnified by the fact that nothing has changed on the substance of the currency question, merely its effectiveness as a wedge issue with undecided voters.

Can Better Together take any positives from the debate? Only two. First, Salmond failed repeatedly to explain how an independent Scotland would plug the £6bn fiscal black hole projected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Second, the independence campaign figurehead was subdued when quizzed by an audience member on the impact on jobs of waving Trident submarines down the Clyde.

Intermission, and a tense scene that should give us all pause.

Darling, the one-time Trotskyist, was assailed by an audience member for selling out his socialist principles. What, she demanded to know, would Aneurin Bevan think of him? Darling inexplicably struggled to respond to her onslaught. He could have parried that it was Bevan himself who said the "language of priorities" was "the religion of socialism".

He could have rhymed off Labour's introduction of the minimum wage, investment in public services, economic growth, and job creation - to say nothing of the advance in LGBT rights, humanitarian intervention in Sierra Leone, and, of course, the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

Watch audience member question Darling on Bevan

That he could manage none of this speaks to larger problems than Darling's debating skills. It signals an emotionally shattered Scottish Labour Party which has finally come to terms with its 2007 defeat to the SNP but cannot quite muster the confidence to pick itself up again.

Regardless of the referendum result, Scottish Labour has much soul-searching and a power of rebuilding still to do before it can present itself as an alternative government to the Nationalists. Unfortunately for Johann Lamont's party, Labour has always expressed a greater preference for the former than the latter.

However, the audience member's question throws up an equal challenge to the SNP, that New-Labour-in-denial party of Scottish politics. The SNP has always been an ideological chameleon, changing its socio-economic colours to suit the fashions of the day, but its triangulations now rival Tony Blair at his poll-obsessed, focus-grouping, Middle England-pandering zenith.

It is the party of Jamie Hepburn and of Fergus Ewing, of no nukes and no wars but safeguarding military jobs on the Clyde, of welfare caps and welfare-reform-is-beastly, of public investment and of council tax freezes, of sexual tolerance and of Sir Brian Souter, of republicanism and of monarchism, of egalitarianism and of corporation tax cuts, of Stiglitz and of sterlingisation, of drill-baby-drill and of wind-powered Mother Earthism. A church so broad it risks becoming non-denominational except on the fundamental doctrine of independence.

At some point, there will be a reckoning. That point will be hastened by one of two things: a Yes vote or a comfortable No vote, either of which would lance the independence boil. A narrow defeat for the pro-independence movement will only postpone the inevitable ideological introspection that awaits the Nationalists.

Those, however, are concerns for another day. Salmond has reminded those foolish enough to forget the first rule of Scottish politics: Underestimate Alex Salmond at your peril. He alone will not carry the Yes campaign over the finish line - keep chapping those doors and registering those voters, Radical Independence - but he will have delivered a much-needed morale boost to the troops.

What of the voters, though? Before STV's August 5 debate, John Curtice's poll of polls had Yes on 43% and No on 57% when Don't Knows were excluded. Anyone want to guess Professor Curtice's most recent tally? You guessed it. Yes 43%, No 57%.

There are just three weeks to go until Scotland votes. A week may be a long time in politics but three weeks is a passing moment in public opinion formation. Now that he has the attention of undecided voters, Salmond must talk to them, woo them, ease them into the polling booth and coax their pencil over to the Yes column on referendum day.

The naysayers - and nawsayers - may be right that debates do not significantly shift public attitudes. But the Yes campaign might not need a significant shift. A few points could make the race close enough that turnout makes all the difference and few doubt that Yes voters are more motivated and determined than No voters or those still to make up their minds. If that scenario plays out, this referendum is going to be excruciatingly close.

The clock is still ticking, the music throbbing faster. The end credits are only a few scenes away. Our leading men are running full tilt in pursuit of those remaining uncommitted voters. When all fades to black on September 18, neither side wants to be left wishing it had done more to win over the audience.

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