Voters are being repelled by the “harder, darker edge” to the Scottish Conservative campaign under new leader Douglas Ross, Willie Rennie has said.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leaders said his party is targeting voters who had supported former Tory leader Ruth Davidson, but are less keen on Mr Ross.
Mr Rennie also claimed voters are considering switching to his party from the SNP, claiming they have been put off by Nicola Sturgeon “pushing an independence referendum in the middle of a pandemic”.
Speaking at the Lib Dem manifesto launch, he said he is “optimistic we’re going to win more seats”.
Top of the party’s target list is the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross seat, currently held by children’s minister Maree Todd.
Mr Rennie said the seats his party hopes to gain “could be the difference between the SNP getting a majority and not”.
The Lib Dems came fifth in the 2016 Holyrood election, but Mr Rennie said phone canvassing suggests voters who previously backed other parties could switch their support to his.
Speaking about the Tories, he said: “There are people who have been traditionally what we would call soft Conservatives, they’re liberal minded, more centre ground, they were attracted by Ruth but they’re not attracted by Douglas and the chaos of Brexit.
“There’s a harder, darker edge to the Conservative campaign this time, and people are repelled by that.”
He described Ms Davidson, who is quitting Holyrood, as a “big, bubbly, bright individual” whereas her replacement is “a bit darker”.
He said Mr Ross, a Tory MP, “votes with Boris (Johnson) most of the time”, adding: “He’s not got the rebellious streak Ruth has.”
Speaking about one Tory campaign photocall which Mr Rennie said saw Mr Ross “standing on a jeep with a black mask on”, he added it “just looked a bit dark”.
He claimed the Conservatives under Mr Ross are “more to the right than where Ruth was”, and “less socially liberal”.
Mr Rennie said: “For all those reasons, I think there is a darker image and a darker position amongst the Conservatives than there was previously.”
But Mr Ross insisted his party has “absolutely not” shifted to the right, citing policies on protecting the victims of crime and free school meals as evidence.
The Tory leader added: “I think people looking at our policies would see a Scottish Conservative Party that has listened to communities and sectors across Scotland, as I promised we would, and has responded by introducing policies that work for individuals and families up and down the country.
“If Willie Rennie disagrees with that, that’s fine.
“I disagree with the fact that he thinks it’s a major political event for him to sit in an oversized deck chair.
“We’re not going to agree on everything, but on this one I disagree with Willie Rennie.”
Meanwhile Mr Rennie also claimed there are “lots of examples” of SNP supporters who feel “this is not the moment” for another independence referendum.
Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly said a second vote on independence would not take place until the immediate crisis of the pandemic is over.
Mr Rennie insisted the “vote amongst the SNP is softer than I have ever seen it, the hesitation amongst SNP supporters is considerable”.
Saying it is “all to play for” in the campaign, Mr Rennie added: “Caithness is looking very positive, our candidate is bright young Molly Nolan who has got a great chance of beating Maree Todd.”
He also claimed his party could make gains on the regional list, saying: “The West of Scotland we’re not that far away from that, the South of Scotland, we’ve got a really good chance too.
“Those are the kind of seats. There’s the potential if we didn’t get Caithness we could get a Highland list.
“Those small number of seats could make the difference between the SNP and the Greens getting a majority and not, and that is where all our focus is.”