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Scotland’s independence movement is looking to a big grassroots campaign to help win over undecided voters, after suffering a major setback in Tuesday night’s televised debate.

With the September 18 referendum looming, most polls show the Scottish nationalists trailing their pro-union rivals by a wide margin.

Even Yes vote partisans admit that Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, fell short of expectations in his debate with pro-union campaign leader and former UK chancellor Alistair Darling.

Mr Salmond’s aides tried to play down the disappointment, saying undecided voters are moving toward Yes and suggesting that the grassroots campaign will have a bigger impact in the last six weeks before the votes.

They say the Yes campaign will refine its message – a new theme of “opportunity” will be unveiled shortly – but no shift in strategy or tactics is warranted.

“We are within touching distance of a Yes vote,” a spokesman said, citing the results of a few relatively favourable opinion polls that suggested modest growth in support for independence and implied that a swing of under five percentage points could seal victory.

“We are the underdogs, we’ve always been the underdog, but we have the momentum,” the spokesman said.

Most opinion polls suggest a much larger gap, however. An Ipsos-Mori survey for STV found the Yes camp had narrowed the lead for No by four points since June – but was still fourteen points behind.

A post-debate poll concluded that Mr Darling had won. John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said the former UK chancellor had not struck a “knockout” blow but the odds against a Yes victory had lengthened.

“Darling didn’t need to win, he just needed to draw,” Professor Curtice said. “It was a moment that the Yes side badly needed to seize to their advantage and it looks as if they haven’t managed to do that.”

Mr Salmond will have at least one more chance to take on Mr Darling, with another debate scheduled for August 25. But Yes campaigners say emphasis will shift from the “air war” fought by politicians to the “ground war” led by an army of activists.

The grassroots campaign is powered by the Scottish National party’s formidable electioneering machine, including a sophisticated voter database. It also includes a host of other groups including the Green party and the Radical Independence Campaign.

For many Yes activists, Mr Salmond’s debate performance is a side issue.

“Who cares? It isn’t significant. Repeat to yourself the simple truth: It’s not about Alex Salmond. It’s not about Alistair Darling,” pro-independence commentator Mike Small wrote on the Bella Caledonia website

But Blair McDougall, campaign director of Better Together dismisses claims that it is outgunned on street corners and doorsteps. The No camp has a “laser focused” grassroots machine that is reaching undecided voters with arguments that will make them back the UK next month, he says.

Mr McDougall saw the debate – where Mr Darling put heavy pressure on Mr Salmond over his refusal to name a “plan B” if London refuses to share the pound – as vindicating its strategy of stressing worries about the economic implications of leaving the UK.

This message will carry the No camp to victory next month, he said. “The terms of debate will not change dramatically,” Mr McDougall said. “We’ll be turning up the volume.”

However, some pro-independence campaigners cite the SNP’s 2011 landslide victory in elections for the Scottish parliament as an example of how it can come from behind and how opinion polls can be slow to track shifting opinion. Less than two months before the vote some polls still showed a lead of up to 15 points for the Labour party.

But analysts said the referendum, with its multiyear build-up, was very different from a general election and voting intentions could be much harder to shift.

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