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Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, left, and Britain's former treasury chief and leader of the pro-Union Better Together campaign Alistair Darling are shown during a televised debate Aug. 5 ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence, in Glasgow, Scotland. A second televised debate is to take place on August 25.Devlin Photo Ltd/The Associated Press

It was supposed to be Alex Salmond's moment of glory. After 30 years of making the case for Scotland's independence, he had the chance to sway voters in a televised debate just six weeks before a referendum on whether his country should leave the United Kingdom.

All he had to do, his advisers told him, was remain positive and try not to be too combative. A "happiness guru" was brought in to make sure the veteran leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) came across as upbeat and optimistic in his portrayal of what an independent Scotland would look like after a Yes vote on Sept. 18.

Almost discounted in the pre-debate chatter was the presence of Mr. Salmond's rival, the supposedly too-dour and too-scholarly head of the Better Together campaign, Alistair Darling.

Despite the No side's comfortable lead in most polls, Mr. Darling went on the attack with a surprisingly feisty performance Tuesday. He hammered away at what he portrayed as a fundamental weakness in the SNP's platform for an independent country: the idea that Scotland could enter a currency union with the rest of the U.K. and keep using the pound sterling, even though the British government has repeatedly said there will be no currency deal in the wake of a vote for independence.

"The pound belongs to the United Kingdom, the Bank of England stands behind it. If we leave the U.K., we leave the pound. What is your Plan B?" Mr. Darling, a former chancellor of the exchequer, asked early in the first televised debate of the campaign. It set off the feistiest argument – and most damaging one for Mr. Salmond – of the two-hour exchange.

Mr. Salmond squirmed to explain that he believed the U.K. would eventually accept a currency union "because it's good for Scotland and good for the rest of the United Kingdom." Meanwhile, Mr. Darling wagged his finger and repeated the question: "What is your Plan B?"

"I presume the flag [of an independent Scotland] will be the Saltire, I presume the capital will still be Edinburgh, but you can't tell me what our currency will be?" Mr. Darling said to applause from the live audience in Glasgow's Royal Conservatoire.

It became plain that Mr. Salmond either has no Plan B, or wouldn't admit to having one. He said the idea Scotland would be prevented from using the pound after a Yes vote was "a campaign tactic, not a serious proposition. It's designed to scare the people of Scotland, and it won't work."

But the live audience seemed unconvinced and kept up the pressure when their turn came to question the politicians. "I'd feel much more comfortable with an independent Scotland if there was some sort of workable contingency explained to us," said one middle-aged male voter, who said he was undecided but leaning toward voting No because of worries over the economy and the currency issue.

With polls showing support for independence at somewhere between 42 and 47 per cent, the Yes side came into the debate hoping Mr. Salmond would soundly thump Mr. Darling, who was widely seen as the less-skilled debater.

Instead, strategists will be looking to post-debate polls to see whether the Yes side – which has seen its support slowly climb since the start of 2014 – loses any momentum because of Mr. Darling's performance Tuesday. A snap poll conducted after the debate by The Guardian newspaper and ICM found that 56 per cent of respondents thought Mr. Darling had won the evening.

"Darling came alive in his cross-examination of Salmond, which I think he won, especially on the currency," said David Torrance, a columnist with Scotland's The Herald newspaper and a biographer of Mr. Salmond. "But for undecided voters, I'm not sure there's much they would take away that was new."

Mr. Salmond did find firm footing at moments in the debate, winning applause with lines about the need for decisions about Scotland to be made in Scotland, rather than in London. Few Scots voted for the Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron, he said, and few supported the Conservative government's policies of fiscal austerity or the presence of Britain's fleet of Trident nuclear submarines at a base near Glasgow.

"There are more pandas in the zoo in Edinburgh than there are Tory MPs from Scotland," Mr. Salmond said, referring to the fact the Conservatives won only one seat north of the border in the 2010 election. Independence would mean "we'll get the government that Scotland votes for."

Many Scots say the referendum campaign feels like an argument between their heads and their hearts. Mr. Darling won the heads Tuesday night and used his closing appeal to highlight the uncertainties that would follow a No vote on Sept. 18.

Mr. Salmond, meanwhile, used his closing remarks to make a last-ditch appeal to Scottish hearts. "Voting yes is a vote for ambition over fear," he said.

But many in the audience left wishing Mr. Salmond had quelled their fears a little, and explained the details of his ambition a little more clearly.