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Tsai Ing-wen greets supporters: She has been polishing her campaign skills.

DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

By the time Tsai Ing-wen slowly makes her way to the front of an evening campaign rally, the surrounding crush of green-shirted Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters has already grown hoarse. Again and again, they chant: "Tsai Ing-wen, dangsuan!" ("Tsai Ing-wen, get elected!").

The trim Taiwanese lawyer and professor who climbs her way onto the stage hasn't done that yet. But she has now come very close, riding a wave of support expected to deliver her to the presidential palace in Saturday elections.

A win for Ms. Tsai would seat a woman at the helm of a Chinese-majority nation for the first time in modern history and put a definitive end to the rule of outgoing president Ma Ying-jeou. His eight-year pursuit of warmer ties with the mainland culminated in a historic meeting last fall with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But at a time when China has aggressively pursued its territorial claims, Ms. Tsai has risen as leader of a party with a history of seeking independence for Taiwan, provoking hostility from Beijing.

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"If you don't vote," she says, to a sea of madly waving flags, "there will be no change from those eight years of suffering. Democracy means changing parties."

The change she wants is historic. The Kuomintang has ruled Taiwan for most of the seven decades since it emerged from Japanese occupation. Now, polls suggest it stands to lose not just the presidency, by a large margin, but, for the first time, possibly control of the legislature.

"This is it – the final mile to our success!" Ms. Tsai tells the cheering crowd.

Although Taiwan conducts its affairs like a sovereign country, it is considered a renegade province by Beijing, which expects one day to unify it with the mainland – and is prepared to take it by force.

Decades of sometimes dangerous tension between the two sides have threatened to destabilize relations between China and the U.S., which long ago pledged to backstop Taiwan. The stakes are higher today, with a far wealthier and better-armed China that brooks little opposition to its demands.

Now Ms. Tsai, a 59-year-old admirer of Germany's Angela Merkel and Britain's late Margaret Thatcher, stands set to become a key broker in the fraught global dealings with an expansionist Beijing. With its democratic system and Chinese-speaking population, many of whom have roots in China, Taiwan has long occupied a pivotal position at the intersection of the mainland and the West.

An unflashy pragmatist, Ms. Tsai has already come to represent a generation that sees itself as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. The last time she ran for president, in 2012, China branded her a separatist – the kind of terminology it usually reserves for its worst foes.

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Early in her public-service career as an adviser to then-president Lee Teng-hui, Ms. Tsai was one of the authors of the "two-state solution," a theory whose unveiling helped to trigger a crisis in 1999 that saw China announce its development of the neutron bomb and fly jets near the centre line of the Taiwan Strait, in one of serveral high-stakes provocations stemming from Beijing's conviction that Taiwan must be kept as part of "one China."

The likelihood of Ms. Tsai's victory has raised the prospect of more tension with China, and President Xi has warned that, if the region's new leader doesn't renounce independence, "the ship of peaceful development will meet with great waves and even suffer total loss."

Responsibility for that does not fall exclusively on Ms. Tsai's shoulders. It is Beijing that has historically often incited confrontation, and the People's Liberation Army continues to maintain arrays of missiles on the opposite side of the Taiwan Strait.

But in China, blame has been directed at Ms. Tsai, whose backing of the "two-state theory" means "she personally cannot win the trust of the mainland side," said Zhang Wensheng, director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Xiamen University.

"If she is in power, the effect will definitely be negative, and will bring about a comparatively strong attack on cross-strait relations."

Ms. Tsai has, nonetheless, so far been able to avoid the drama provoked by Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president, who survived an assassination attempt a day before being re-elected in 2004 — a shooting that remains controversial to this day, with accusations of its being politically motivated coming from both sides.

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And, Prof. Zhang said, crisis is not unavoidable: Perhaps the two sides will settle on a "cold peace."

That would fit well with Ms. Tsai herself, a brainy and unmarried leader who lives with her two cats and has little of the charismatic showmanship that sustains other political leaders.

"You could say she is cold or she is cool, depending on how you choose your words. She is very cerebral and very prudent," said Lin Chong-pin, a former deputy minister of defence who has worked alongside Ms. Tsai and is now a professor of international relations at Tamkang University in Taipei. "A total atypical actor in the field of politics."

Born the youngest daughter of nine children to a wealthy merchant family, Ms. Tsai struggled in the rigid Taiwan school system and left for graduate studies in the more open environments of Cornell University and the London School of Economics, where she obtained a PhD in law.

She returned to Taiwan as a professor, before being asked to work for government in a series of increasingly senior roles: international trade negotiator, National Security Council adviser and then head of the Mainland Affairs Council, the powerful body that manages Taiwan's affairs with China.

Colleagues saw someone who, through dint of hard work and an appetite for briefing books, quickly grew competent at jobs for which she did not appear qualified.

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"She is a quiet, rational, cool-headed professional and quick decision-maker," said Alexander Huang, who served under Ms. Tsai at the Mainland Affairs Council.

Aside from a belief that Taiwanese people should have a greater voice in their own affairs, he said, Ms. Tsai is no visionary nor ideologue: "Her mission is to win." Prof. Huang doubts she will stir trouble with China, saying she covets calm to provide her room to address a sputtering economy, not to mention a list of other thorny domestic issues.

Ms. Tsai has promised solutions to the stagnation that has hurt salaries and job prospects for the young, while also committing to boost transparency, reform the legislature, address long-standing aboriginal grievances and create a more hospitable political culture. (Long before it was settled by outsiders, including Chinese, Taiwan was inhabited by Austronesian tribes linguistically and culturally related to the Pacific islands, about 500,000 of whom remain on the island.)

She is a different kind of leader for Taiwan, one who observers say has, in weathering failed bids to become mayor of Taipei as well as president, developed an ability to get things done and entertain new thinking.

Her losing 2012 campaign was criticized as unfocussed, poorly-managed and overly reliant on a narrow group of advisers. In the four years since her last presidential attempt, she has polished her performance skills – rehearsing for debates, ironing out ticks that could prove distracting – and opened the political tent to others. She has won friends in the business community and brought civil-society figures into the party's back room, a step that has ushered voices previously relegated to the outside into the political process.

She kept her own party's candidates out of districts where other reform-minded groups stood a better chance. Going even further, her face is now printed on banners alongside pictures of candidates from parties that could become political rivals.

"In terms of generating new ideas, the fact she is now in many ways co-operating, or even working, with people who a couple of years ago were part of civil society – that's a very positive development," said J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow with the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute based in Taipei.

At the same time, she has sought better relations in the U.S., after a 2011 trip to Washington prompted an Obama administration official to pan her ability "to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years." By contrast, the U.S. Department of State called her 2015 visit to Washington "constructive," and Ms. Tsai has said she wants to "strengthen our partnerships with the United States, Japan and other like-minded democracies from around the world."

But her desire to play nice has also raised alarm at home that she will play too softly with China.

"I'm more worried that the DPP is going to be too lenient toward a Beijing regime, because of business interests," said Wu'er Kaixi, a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who came to Taiwan after fleeing China and is now running for the legislature in Taipei. He accuses Western countries of appeasing China, and "I worry Tsai Ing-wen may adopt that policy, too," he said.

For her part, Ms. Tsai has pledged to stick to the status quo with China – a term she has deliberately left ill-defined – promising answers that will come from a new approach rather than a vision of something radically different.

In a 2011 address at Harvard University, she advocated facing "China with confidence and with a certain degree of accommodation" – advice she seems to have taken to heart as she stands on the threshold of Taiwan's presidency.

Asked this week how she would deal with Xi Jinping, she said: "It is a matter of communication, communication and communication."

Nathan VanderKlippe is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Beijing.

Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly quoted J. Michael Cole. This story has been corrected.

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