Voting for a New Britain: Resolute Salmond takes it on the chin

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THE BOUT of political canvassing by the beleaguered Scottish National Party leader, Alex , ended almost before it began. When he hit Montgomery Street in Edinburgh yesterday, with a posse of cameramen in tow, the road was deserted except for an elderly couple out for a stroll, who were duly rewarded with a few minutes of Mr Salmond's time.

With not another soul in sight, Mr Salmond and SNP campaigners had to be content with sticking campaign leaflets under the windscreens of parked cars. The damp little episode seemed entirely in keeping with the tone of this historic but distinctly lacklustre election contest, overshadowed by the Balkans war.

The point was to show Mr Salmond with his chin up - a chin that has taken a few blows in the past two days. He woke yesterday morning to a headline screaming "SNP in freefall" in The Herald newspaper, whose opinion poll showed his party's support crumbling, and trailing way behind Labour. The day before Mr Salmond, who has led his party for 10 years, had been hit by a damning report on the economic consequences of independence.

Rumours that at SNP headquarters morale was plummeting as sharply as the poll showings were "just balls", he said. "Our chins are not on the ground. This is an experienced team and it's been through lots of campaigns and lots of polls."

As he prepared for an appearance with other party leaders on BBC television's Question Time last night, Mr Salmond insisted he was not rattled by events. "Big deal," he said of the latest economic report. Previous economic surveys had been more favourable to the SNP. And when it comes to opinion polls there is "only one poll that really counts".

Seasoned observers of the Scottish political scene do not doubt the stamina of Mr Salmond, whose absolute grip on his party makes Mr Blair's look limp-wristed. "He is a tough cookie," said one senior political journalist. "But he does look tired."

The election campaign began with a spate of newspaper stories asking why Mr Salmond, entering the election he had longed for, was so subdued, apparently robbed of his usual self-confidence. It is generally held that leader and party - in the SNP they are now the same thing - are being tested as never before.

In elections to Westminster the SNP was only ever expected to win a few seats. But as the main opposition to Labour in the new Scottish parliament - promotion from local league to premier division, is how some describe it - the SNP is being subjected to an unprecedented grilling from the Scottish media, much of which is openly anti-SNP.

Despite his control of his party, and his high media profile, Mr Salmond remains largely an enigma.

Few titbits circulate about his private life beyond the fact that his wife is 17 years his senior, his mother voted Tory and he seems to like the occasional flutter. The racing tipster for The Herald, he nipped into a bookmakers at the start of the campaign to put pounds 20 on the SNP winning most seats in the new parliament.

Some reckon he has gambled politically with his Penny for Scotland campaign - the SNP plans to claw back Gordon Brown's penny income tax cut to spend it on public services - and his opposition to Nato's action on Kosovo. It does not help that polls show him trailing Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, on trust, good judgement, leadership and even charisma.

The SNP have been on the verge of breakthrough and glory so many times before. And nerves must be wobbly.

For a party which depends on an emotional response more than most it may all be a question of confidence now. And not just of Mr Salmond's.

In a football-obsessed country, where metaphors around the game of two halves are much overused, SNP veteran Jim Sillars once bitterly described Scots as "90 minute patriots", presumably with no guts for extra time.

If Mr Salmond is seen to lose his nerve, wavering voters may lose theirs. So Mr Salmond knows that come what may, that chin must stay up.

His leadership is at risk as much as the election. The SNP's reluctaqnce to use the "N" and "I" words - nationalism and independnece - for fear of scaring off the voters, has frustrated the more militant wing of the party. It will try to tear Mr Salmond apart if the strategy fails.