Alex Salmond fails to find game-changer in independence debate

Alex Salmond badly needed a game-changing moment in last night's independence debate. He failed to get one.

Expectations were high for Salmond's performance. A poll conducted in advance of the debate found 77% expected the SNP leader to win with just 23% predicting Alistair Darling would triumph.

Bookies also reported high hopes for Salmond's performance, with 75% of those placing bets in the 24 hours leading up to the debate, placing them on the Yes campaign.

Salmond failed to live up to those expectations. A poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of the debate found just 44% saying Salmond had won with 56% favouring Darling.

This was not a landslide. In fact the result was within a couple of points of polling on the referendum itself, suggesting that if anything the debate failed to change any minds.

But this is precisely the problem for Salmond. Changing minds is exactly what he needed to do.

With just weeks to go until Scotland goes to the polls, he badly needed to erode the unionist's stubborn lead in this campaign. Last night was his best chance yet to do just that. All the evidence is that he failed.

Some of the claims about Salmond's performance have been overblown. The SNP leader came across as calm and personable and his tactic of leaving the podium to speak to the audience during the debate was effective.

Darling by contrast, often appeared agitated and at times almost became too aggressive in the debate.

But this was not a presidential-style debate. Scots are not being asked to vote in a personality contest between Salmond and Darling. They are being asked to vote about the very future and security of their country.

And on all the big issues, like the currency, public spending and the economy, Salmond failed to present a convincing case of why Scots would be better off leaving the UK.

Darling meanwhile was highly effective on those same issues. On the pound in particular, he made Salmond look incredibly evasive and short of answers. If the SNP leader failed to live up to his expectations last night, then Darling seriously exceeded his.

The former chancellor has often suffered  from being seen as Gordon Brown's sidekick and Salmond received some of his best audience responses last night when attacking his record presiding over the economic crisis.

But if Scotland does vote 'no' in next month's referendum then Darling will rightly take much of the credit for it. And after last night's performance Ed Miliband would be foolish not to make far more use of him over the next nine months.