The debate, hosted on STV, saw the three candidates cross-examine each other and answer questions from viewers, with fiery clashes over the next move around the UK Government’s blockage of the gender recognition reform bill and on independence.
At the start of the debate, the three candidates set out their main pitch to SNP voters, with Ash Regan stating that the ballot box would be used to achieve independence while alluding to the “competence” of Alex Salmond’s leadership for the SNP.
Humza Yousaf, on the other hand, stated he would stand up for Scotland through challenging the Section 35 order around the gender recognition reform, while highlighting his commitment to Nicola Sturgeon’s progressive agenda and willingness to fight
Kate Forbes, on the other hand, underlined her status as a change candidate, but one based on building a strong economy and eradicating poverty.
Clashing with her rivals over independence strategy, Ms Regan announced she had spoken to Alex Salmond, the leader of the Alba Party, and other leaders of pro-independence parties earlier that day, claiming they were all “excited” about her plans.
This claim was later labelled “plainly false” by leader of the only other pro-independence party in Holyrood the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, who said the party was not endorsing a candidate. Ms Regan’s campaign later said they had left a message.
However they were savaged by Mr Yousaf, who said the UK Government had “no common decency” and it was not credible to suggest they would “somehow come round the negotiating table” following a 50 per cent plus one victory for the SNP at an election, in the process attacking the strategy held by Nicola Sturgeon prior to her resignation.
Mr Yousaf also attempted to undermine the record of Ms Forbes in her role of finance secretary. In answer to claims from Ms Forbes she had taken on and won against the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, Mr Yousaf accused his rival of leaving Scotland “a bit short”.
He was also the only candidate to unequivocally say he would keep the governing coalition with the Scottish Greens, stating it was “absolutely vital” to maintain a “pro-independence majority” in parliament. He added “the first thing we cannot do is simply reject the other pro-independence party” if the SNP was seeking to grow support for independence.
Ms Forbes faced repeated questions about her plans for the cooperation deal, eventually stating that she would be “open to keeping them in government” but that it would be for the Greens to judge whether they were willing to stick with her policies around economic growth.
Ms Regan said she would “review” the power-sharing agreement to ensure it was “working for the people of Scotland”.
During a fiery cross-examination, Ms Forbes took aim at Mr Yousaf’s record in government, accusing him of having failed in each of his prior roles. She accused him of seeing trains not running on time during his time as transport minister and with record high waiting times while he was health secretary.
Mr Yousaf said he had “built new roads and railways”, delivered the Queensferry Crossing under budget, “extended protections for domestic abuse victims” and “delivered the fastest ever Covid booster programme”.
Asked by Ms Forbes whether he was the “continuity candidate” and if that meant he was the “no change candidate”, Mr Yousaf shot back “if change means lurching to the right, Kate, if it means rolling back on progressive values, that’s the right change”.
Ms Regan used her chance to question the other candidates to question their plans for independence, stating both her rivals did not have credible plans and they would “beg” Westminster for a referendum.
Ms Forbes also faced questions on her plans for independence from Ms Regan, stating she would make the economic case for independence and was the “only leader to convince No voters”. “i believe I am the leader that our opponents most fear”.
During questioning from Mr Yousaf, Ms Forbes was accused of having her judgement over the principle of challenging the blocking of the gender reforms “clouded” by her person views.
"Not at all,” she responded. “My approach here is if we were independent we would not be in this position,” adding she would wait for legal advice.
Mr Yousaf also sought to underline Ms Forbes early-campaign difficulties with comments on equal marriage, pointing at the number of MSPs who left her campaign and stating she could not be expected to bring No voters to Yes when “you can’t keep Yes voters onside”.
Ms Forbes responded by saying she had made a “solemn and honest pledge” to “upholding and defending the right of every Scot in Scotland”.
Ms Regan, pressed on her plans to effectively ditch the coalition with the Greens by Mr Yousaf, said she would work with “any party across the parliament” in order to pass her budget as part of a minority administration.
The candidates will face off on TV again on Thursday, with Channel 4 hosting a live head-to-head with the three candidates in Glasgow.
Prior to the STV debate, Ms Forbes pledged to increase the number of university places north of the border for Scots to study medicine, if she is chosen to succeed Nicola Sturgeon.
The finance secretary said she would seek to have a conversation with the country’s five medical schools “with the aim of increasing the number of spaces for Scottish-based medical students at our universities”.
The candidate insisted: “Bluntly we will have an ongoing crisis in the NHS if we don’t recruit many more doctors.
“There’s clear evidence that Scottish medical students who qualify from a Scottish university are much more likely to stay in Scotland when they graduate.
“From my initial conversations with frontline medics, there is a strong rationale for growing more of our own talent here.”
Noting the competition for places to study medicine at university is already “very high”, Ms Forbes said that this demonstrated there are plenty of well-qualified Scottish pupils keen to pursue a career in medicine”.
She continued: “If I am elected first minister I would like to have significant discussions with medical schools and their universities regarding actual numbers and the speed at which things can be scaled up.
“This would form part of a wider conversation – other health professionals from nurses to psychologists to speech therapists are all part of the picture, and we mustn’t forget about them either.”
Meanwhile, marking International Women’s Day, Mr Yousaf offered a “cast-iron guarantee” there will be “no rowing back in support for women’s rights or in women’s representation” if he gets the keys to Bute House.
Mr Yousaf committed to continuing the practice of forming a gender balanced cabinet, making misogyny a crime, fast tracking delivery of free childcare for one and two year olds and supporting buffer zones near abortion clinics.
“I believe in equality and I know that while women’s rights, and women’s equality, have made significant strides forward – there is still a long way to go,” he said.
“Our progress cannot be taken for granted.
“I have championed women’s rights throughout my time in politics, and as your SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister, I give you an unshakable commitment that women’s rights will be a priority for my Government.
“Today I am offering women across Scotland a cast-iron guarantee that under my leadership there will be no rowing back in support for women’s rights or in women’s representation.
“That commitment to representation starts in the highest political office – that’s why as First Minister I would maintain a gender-balanced cabinet.”
Voting opens for SNP members on Monday, March 13, and will close two weeks later on March 27, the same day the winner will be announced.