Candidates were given their first opportunity to open up battle lines and pick at each other's manifestos, as Peter Smith reports
Ash Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are battling to replace Nicola Sturgeon as party leader and Scottish First Minister.
On Tuesday, the trio debated a host of topics on STV, including the SNP's coalition with the Greens and the controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
But the question of how Scotland could break away from the UK dominated the debate.
Former community safety minister, Ms Regan, said that while the SNP had won the "moral mandate" for another referendum, it had been unable to persuade Westminster to give the go-ahead.
She argued that a referendum "is not the gold standard", saying the SNP could use the ballot box at elections to try to win independence.
Ms Forbes, meanwhile, said independence would only happen when a majority of Scots had been persuaded to leave the UK.
While Mr Yousaf stressed the need to "build popular support".
He added: "Consistent majority support for independence will mean those political obstacles put up by Westminster, they will be overcome."
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know
But Ms Regan accused her rivals of "going cap in hand to Westminster", saying: "This hasn’t worked so far, why should it work now?"
Mr Yousaf hit back, telling her a majority of votes in an election would not bring Westminster to the table. "There is no common decency with the UK government, if we get 50% plus one they will somehow come round the negotiating table," he said.
"We are talking about a government in the UK that literally sends refugees on planes to Rwanda. They are not going to sit down with us just because we win an election."
Mr Yousaf pledged to go to court to challenge the use of the section 35 order by the UK government to block Scotland's Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
The legislation had set out to simplify the process of obtaining a Gender Recognition certificate, and, for the first time, allow transgender people to obtain such a document without the need for a medical diagnosis.
Meanwhile, Ms Regan said she would "review" the powersharing agreement with the Greens to ensure it was "working for the people of Scotland".
All three candidates also pledged to increase the Scottish Child Payment to tackle the cost of living crisis.