Nicola Sturgeon made a direct appeal to Scots to re-elect her as First Minister – launching a strong attack on her Tory rival as she did so.
The SNP leader accused Douglas Ross of taking orders from the Conservatives in Westminster.
She unleashed the attack as the five leaders of Scotland’s main political parties took part in the second TV debate of the election campaign.
During the socially distanced showdown, broadcast on STV, Ms Sturgeon asked the Scottish Conservative leader: “Isn’t it the case that whatever the UK Government says, you just do it?”
She told him: “First ministers need to stand up for Scotland, Douglas, not take orders from Westminster.”
The Tory responded by saying the first ministers “need to work with governments around the United Kingdom”.
The clashes came as Ms Sturgeon and Mr Ross took part in a debate with Labour’s Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, and Scottish Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie.
Scotland’s new political party, the pro-independence Alba Party – led by former first minister Alex Salmond, was not invited to the showdown.
As the political rivals debated how best the country can recover from coronavirus, Mr Ross insisted: “We will deliver most for the people of Scotland for our recovery, if our two governments work together, not always looking to pick fights.”
But with Labour fighting for second place in the May 6 election, the Scottish Conservative also came under attack from Mr Sarwar.
The new Scottish Labour leader accused the Conservatives of seeking to “talk up division, because you want to gain votes”.
During the debate, as throughout the campaign so far, Mr Ross stressed his party’s opposition to the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum.
But Mr Sarwar told him: “You aren’t good for the union, you aren’t good for the national recovery, you aren’t even good for the Tories. Scotland deserves a better opposition.”
Ms Sturgeon again argued that Scots should get another vote on the country’s future in the UK once the coronavirus crisis has passed.
She said the last year year had been “tough” as a result of the pandemic, and added: “I’m asking you to re-elect me as First Minister so I can help steer us back to better times, and then get on with the serious job of rebuilding our economy, recovering our NHS, and getting our young people back on track.
“And yes, when the crisis is passed, offering you the choice of independence.”
Mr Ross insisted that the next Scottish government should be focused “100% on recovering from Covid”, as he said his party could stop the “push for another referendum again” so that “we can all start rebuilding Scotland”.
He insisted: “We can recover from Covid using the strong foundations of the United Kingdom, we can tackle the looming economic crisis.
“But we won’t manage any of that if the SNP get a majority and hold another divisive referendum.”
Mr Rennie also stressed the need “to put recovery first, not independence”.
He told the audience: “That’s why I believe we will win more Liberal Democrat MSPs in this election.”
Meanwhile, Mr Harvie said the election on May 6 was “like no other before it” – adding that that was not just because of Covid-19.
Speaking about the issue of global warming, he said: “Unless we act it may be the last election before the climate crisis spirals beyond our control.”
He promised his party would work for a “fair and green recovery”, which he said could create 100,000 jobs and help tackle the climate crisis.