MAGONG, Taiwan -- Standing before a crowd on a small island just 30 miles from a Chinese military exercise, Taiwan's president pointed to a Taoist temple behind him, promising his audience that the goddess who lives there, Matsu, will be their savior if China invades.
"Matsu left the mainland 400 years ago to come to Taiwan because she didn't like the mainland," Preident Lee Teng-hui said. "The goddess will protect people here, so the exercises will not affect you."
It was bad history, questionable statesmanship but great domestic politics. It was a vintage Lee Teng-hui performance.
Cutting through the religious imagery, the message was this: Taiwan has had a separate identity from the mainland for centuries far more than just the past 50 years of Communist rule on the mainland. Taiwan can assert its identity without fear of angering China because some great power the United States perhaps will protect it.
This was a typically populist message designed to give Mr. Lee the landslide victory he covets in tomorrow's first democratic presidential election.
But with China, Taiwan and the United States in a dangerous military standoff over the issue of Taiwanese independence, the speech last week was also incendiary. It would provoke China into thinking that Mr. Lee has no intention of reunifying Taiwan with China and that military force may be the only option left.
So who is Mr. Lee, a popular politician bringing democracy to a Chinese state for the first time in history? Or a dangerous demagogue, depending on international attention and the well-oiled machinery of his authoritarian former proteges to boost his ego?
For most voters, the 73-year-old's ambiguity doesn't seem to matter.
Thanks to his introduction of democracy, voters seem willing to forgive for this election at least his failings in undertaking further reforms. And his confusing policy on reunification only seems to mirror their own uncertainty about how to deal with their giant neighbor with 1.2 billion people across the Taiwan Strait.
"He speaks our language," said Wang Yu-heng, a resident of Magong city in Taiwan's Pescadores Islands. "Only President Lee can stand up to China and give us some dignity."
That dignity comes from Mr. Lee's ethnic roots. Son of a tea farmer, Mr. Lee is the first native-born Taiwanese in recorded history to lead the island. And he literally does speak the people's language, favoring the local Min-nan dialect over the official national language, Mandarin Chinese.
Although he has reveled over the past few weeks in the role of a democratic small fry standing up to the Communist giant, Mr. Lee's policies have usually reflected broad national consensus.
President Lee has heightened Taiwan's international profile, asking that Taiwan be allowed to join the United Nations as a separate state and traveling around the world officially as a private citizen to lobby for international recognition.
All the while, he has said he favors reunification with China at some point in the future, preferably when China is as democratic and prosperous as Taiwan.
Mr. Lee's tenure was not even supposed to last this long.
In 1988, Taiwan had been run for 40 years by the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo.
The elder Chiang had lost China's civil war in 1949 and fled with 2 million soldiers and bureaucrats to Taiwan to regroup and eventually try to reconquer the mainland. The invasion never took place, but the island quickly developed into one of Asia's new economic giants.
As vice president under the younger Chiang, who died in office, Mr. Lee was expected to last a year or two and then make way for a tougher leader. Instead, the Cornell Ph.D. held onto power, released scores of political prisoners from jail, invited exiles back from abroad, legalized an opposition party and tossed the hardcore despots out of power.
Even his political adversaries admit this much. What disappoints them is how much further he could have gone, but didn't.
He remains head, for example, of the Nationalist Party, or KMT, which has had its share of corruption.
Founded early this century based on a communist model, the party retains an elaborate infrastructure of party cells, hierarchical leadership and dozens of companies that pump money into any project Mr. Lee wishes.
The main three non-cable television stations are all party controlled, giving Mr. Lee three to four times more air time on the evening news, according to a survey conducted by the independent China Times newspaper.
"The ghost of Lenin runs through the KMT," said Antonio Chiang, publisher of the Journalist magazine and a veteran dissident. "He uses a party that he says he doesn't like to achieve his goals."
Potentially more troubling for Taiwan's fledgling democracy is that Mr. Lee uses KMT money to finance foreign policy goals, said Lu Yali, one of Taiwan's leading political scientists.