IT’S strange that continuity has become such a dirty word in a party that’s won every election since 2007.

And yet for the long list of reasons dumped upon Humza Yousaf’s head during Tuesday night’s STV debate, it seems any association with the current SNP government is a fairly manky and toxic thing.

Much has been said by opposition parties about Kate Forbes’s fairly jaw-dropping attack on the Health Secretary and – with her remark that “more of the same is not a manifesto – it is an acceptance of mediocrity” – at the entire existing government.

Humza has a pivotal role as Health Secretary – the post Tories love to bash, regardless of holder – so an attack on one is an attack on all.

You might say all is fair in love, war and political leadership campaigns – which is true. You might say there is much to criticise in the current government’s record – also true.

And even more wrong with the way the SNP is run internally and with suspicious levels of coordination between MPs and MPs is in support of Humza Yousaf.

But strange to relate, by the end of the STV debate, the candidate who most resembled the current First Minister was also the one most critical of her record.

Humza may well be the continuity-Sturgeon candidate by backing the current First Minister’s more controversial policies.

But Kate IS continuity personified by looking as confident, defiant, articulate (and unlikely to listen to colleagues) as Nicola Sturgeon herself.

A friend watching the STV debate said afterwards of Forbes: “Well she’s quite a handful.” It was unclear if that was a compliment so he clarified. “She’s got fight in her – just like Nicola.”

And it’s true. Just as Nicola was rapidly the centre of attention in every room, chamber and debate – for better and worse – Kate has the same pivotal presence.

The question is whether she’ll take that defiant, righteous fight to the Unionist opposition or find herself mired in fights with erstwhile colleagues, spending time and political capital trying to mend fences.

There were several points on Tuesday night where I found myself wincing. The unexpected tirade of opposition-style attack lines against Yousaf, brought the first blood-letting Tory hustings to mind, completely unbidden.

The Scottish Health Secretary found it as hard to rebuff Forbes’s criticism as the then chancellor struggled under the withering glare of Liz Truss.

And by the way, I draw no further comparisons between Forbes and Truss. None. But thanks to the length of that recent, long, hot, Tory summer, those vitriolic hustings are still alive as a point of comparison few indy supporters ever thought they’d make.

Secondly, within seconds of Humza Yousaf defending the record of Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney – the debate had swirled away elsewhere. Jings, when you’re gone, you’re gone.

As readers of this column will know, I’ve had considerable policy differences with both SNP stalwarts, but are they already disposable figures in the eyes of the next leader?

Finally, when asked if each candidate would appoint the others to government, Forbes said laughingly to Yousaf – “not in health”, kicking open the floodgates for Messrs Ross and Sarwar at FMQs today.

It was reckless, it was a bit horrible, but it was also compulsive, memorable and show-stopping. Like Nicola herself, Kate has become the talk of the Steamie.

Now again to be crystal clear, Nicola would never attack colleagues in public. One can only guess how direct she has been in private. But her public domain was calm, very controlled and apparently comradely. It was the way Nicola ran the ship and it minimised the danger of ricochets when political bullets are fired in close proximity.

So Sturgeon and Forbes are very different operators. But they share the same confidence and fearless (reckless?) focus.

And despite the marmite response Forbes evokes – which applies in different respects and degrees to all the candidates – some SNP members clearly expect that kind of leader. Another Nicola. Or as near as damn it.

Since Kate Forbes clearly differs massively on social issues from the current FM, does that mean SNP members are more “socially conservative” than anyone guessed? Perhaps not. Perhaps they care a lot more about their next leader resembling the last one – powerful, straight talking, driven and intelligent.

So there’s considerable attraction in a Nicola Mk. II candidate. Another woman who is straight talking, formidable and equipped with considerable stamina – managing countrywide hustings and TV debates with a new baby in tow.

Essentially, Nicola was a powerful personality and Kate is the same, exuding more self-belief and single-mindedness than the two other candidates combined. But she also exudes a defiant righteousness.

A lot of SNP members won’t care where that righteousness comes from so long as it’s targeted squarely on Unionism in general and Westminster in particular. But righteousness has a habit of getting everywhere.

And behind powerful personalities sit under-examined policy agendas.

Hard as it is to get past the fireworks, that’s what SNP members should urgently focus on now.

For all her talk of rejecting mediocrity, Forbes has adopted largely the same policies as her predecessor – embracing the corporate sector and backing freeports whilst stepping back from a speedy green transition – and has no clear solution to the independence impasse apart from driving support for independence above 60% by better governance.

Seriously, good luck with that.

The only discontinuity candidate is Ash Regan who matches her tough criticism of the current leadership – “The SNP has lost its way” – with a tougher stance on Westminster indyref vetoes and internal reform of party and government structures which, according to one insider would produce a clear out of advisers and generate a policy reset on many stuck issues.

Mind you, Regan would not have a Section 35 argument with Rishi Sunak over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. Certainly, we know her reasons. But should an SNP government pick and choose when Westminster overrules Holyrood?

One discontinuity is fairly certain. A Forbes or Regan victory will end the current pact with the Greens – even though Regan hopes they’ll still be part of her constitutional convention. Similarly, it’s possible to run a minority government but also very hard work building support afresh with each new budget, bill and government timetable. Especially if you start with seriously aggrieved people on either side.

But, it’s no surprise there’s little agreement within SNP ranks on how the decision should best be taken.

After all, there is a massive membership drawn from the whole of Scottish society.

If Oscar Wilde was right, and the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, then Kate Forbes is your woman.

If you think the SNP’s record is roughly OK, then it’s Humza Yousaf.

If you want “discontinuity” – on both independence and domestic policy – Ash Regan is the choice.

Though her ideas very often sound like student politics, she would be advised not to count the Greens in until she’s spoken to them and starting answers with references to other people’s ideas (when they are often Alba’s) does little to quell suggestions that the Alba Party’s leader Alex Salmond is guiding her campaign.

Clearly, there are upsides and downsides with each candidate.

And clearly, the pressure of having no real debates within the party on vital policy or independence strategies for eight long years has produced a pressure cooker effect.

But a wise leader looks to the future, not just the moment – and has a care before saddling the next first minister with criticisms about a decade of SNP governance.

Criticisms that Unionist parties and the mainstream media will never forget.