Kate Forbes has said her criticism of cabinet colleague Humza Yousaf in the SNP leadership contest displayed her “candour and honesty”.
Ms Forbes, the finance secretary, attacked Mr Yousaf’s record in government during a heated TV debate.
The health secretary hit back by suggesting support for independence would drop if Ms Forbes became leader due to her views on same-sex marriage.
He said candidates’ criticism of the government was damaging for the party.
The pair also clashed with rival contender Ash Regan, who said the SNP had “lost its way” and pledged to unite the broader Yes movement.
On Wednesday First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she did not watch the debate and did not want to provide a “running commentary” on the contest to succeed her.
But angry SNP members expressed their disappointment at the public infighting and described the personal attacks as “disgraceful and dishonest”.
Ms Forbes, however, defended her comments at a campaign event in Edinburgh on Wednesday.
She told reporters: “This is a contest to be the next first minister and I think the public and SNP members want to see somebody who has got the guts to recognise what needs to change and also recognises the fact that we need to have a plan to deliver.
“Last night was all about having the candour and honesty to say more of the same isn’t what Scotland needs – we actually do need change.
“But secondly it’s about competence. And if any SNP leader and future first minister is going to be taking on the Tories in Westminster, for example, then they need to have the mettle and then you have the courage to do that and I think that is what was on display last night.”
The finance secretary said the last 15 years had been “very successful” under “exceptional” SNP leaders.
But she added: “I think you can celebrate the track record of a government and also create the space for questioning what comes next.”
Ms Forbes also insisted she can unite the “broad church” of the SNP under her leadership.
The leadership candidate said the tone of the party’s leadership hustings had been good natured, but the cross-examination section of STV’s televised debate put them under more pressure.
Ms Forbes said: “That’s the bread and butter of a first minister’s job.
“If a first minister is going to be successful, they’re going to have to face down worse than what we were dealing with last night – not least the UK government and the opposition.”
It was during the cross-examination section that Ms Forbes attacked Mr Yousaf’s record as a Scottish government minister.
“You were a transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister we’ve got record high waiting times,” she said.
Asked if he was the “continuity candidate” and if that means he is the “no change candidate”, Mr Yousaf hit back at Ms Forbes, saying: “If change means lurching to the right, Kate, if it means rolling back on progressive values, that’s not the right change.”
Mr Yousaf then cited Ms Forbes stating previously that she would not have voted for same-sex marriage if she had been an MSP when the legislation passed.
The health secretary claimed “many people, particularly from our LGBTQ community, say they wouldn’t vote for independence” as a result of this, adding, “forget persuading No voters, you can’t even keep Yes voters”.
But Ms Forbes stressed she had made a “solemn and honest pledge when it comes to upholding and defending the right of every Scot”.
Each candidate was asked if they would invite their rivals into the newly formed cabinet. Ms Forbes said there was “room for Humza Yousaf” if she won the leadership race but quipped, “maybe not in health”.
Speaking on BBC Politics Live on Wednesday, Mr Yousaf defended the SNP’s record in power.
“I’ve said from day one I’ll run a positive campaign,” he said.
“It does nobody any good, neither the party, nor the movement nor the country to talk down a progressive track record of the SNP that has won us election after election.
“Other candidates may not be happy to stand on that record, even though they’ve been in government for that time.
“I’m very proud to stand on that record.”
Ms Regan told the BBC she did not make personal attacks against fellow candidates because she “didn’t think it was appropriate”.
However, she said she believed she was the only candidate who could “draw a line” under the divisive issue of gender recognition reforms.
She said: “I think it’s entirely legitimate to set out if you want to go in a different direction, if you have a different vision and where you think the party may have made some strategic errors.
“That’s the point of this, we’re looking for a new leader who wants to possibly take us in a new direction.”
Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon told reporters at Holyrood that she did not watch the STV debate.
She added: “I was following all of your tweets and it seemed to be a feisty encounter.”
The SNP leader added: “We have a record in government to be proud of.
“I think what all candidates need to do and I think, all candidates are doing, is setting out how they will build on that and take that forward but I don’t think they need help and advice from me.”
SNP colleagues criticised the public confrontations between candidates following the first televised debate.
MSP Emma Roddick, who is backing Mr Yousaf, tweeted: “Was utterly bizarre to watch an SNP MSP defend SNP policy on national TV against a fellow member of cabinet. Wouldn’t have believed it a month ago.”
MP Pete Wishart described the debate as “thoroughly dispiriting”, adding: “The whole party deserves so much better than this.”
Toni Giugliano, the SNP’s policy development convener, posted: “Disagree on policy or strategy by all means – but to undermine your own government, almost pretending you had nothing to do with it, is disgraceful and dishonest.”
SNP members can vote for Ms Sturgeon’s successor from 13 March.
The winner will be announced on 27 March.
Source – BBC News