While political reforms are stymied in mainland China, Taiwan is preparing for what could be its most open presidential election ever and a breakthrough on the road to full democratization.

At the center of a preelection brawl is James Soong, a 57-year-old powerhouse in the ruling Nationalist Party, whose businesses have made it the world's richest. He is also an architect of Taiwan's democratic reforms.

Soong and President Lee Teng-hui, 76, used to be close political allies. But in 1997, Lee surprised Soong by abolishing his post as governor of Taiwan to diminish his political stature. Now, Soong has shocked Taiwan's political system by planning a run for president.

Lee, who owes his two terms as Taiwan's president in part to Soong's support, has tapped Vice President Lien Chan to succeed him on the Nationalist Party ticket next spring.

In an election with great significance for relations with China and import for the United States, Soong is saying new things about China, America and Taiwan's relations with the two. In a rare interview, he laid out a program for foreign affairs that would break significantly with the Nationalist government's current policy and move Taiwan much closer to Beijing. Quoting Mao Zedong, John F. Kennedy, Confucius and Bill Gates, the Ph.D from Georgetown University appeared eager to challenge the tight hold that Lee has exerted over the island for the past 11 years.

"Taiwan needs a strong president," Soong said, "not a strongman."

Soong's challenge would not mean much except for the fact that he is, by far, the most popular politician in Taiwan. Even though his family hails from China, during three years as governor of Taiwan, Soong won strong support from native Taiwanese by dispersing millions of dollars of pork and learning the language. Native Taiwanese, comprising 85 percent of the island's population, have historically been bitter toward the Nationalist Party. The party fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to China's Communists. The Communists consider Taiwan a renegade province, and threaten to invade if it declares independence.

Island-wide polls regularly place Soong at the top of presidential candidate heap. In one survey, 53.4 percent of those asked said Soong understood their problems, compared with only 3.6 percent for Lien.

Even more significant, in a recent poll of 982 residents in the southern city of Kaohsiung, a hotbed of anti-mainlander sentiment, Soong beat out former Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian, the main native Taiwanese candidate, by 40.5 percent to 27.8 percent. Lien came in third with 13.6.

If he wins, Soong's presidency could present China's rulers with an enormous challenge. China's Communist government has belittled Taiwan's democracy because it associates elections with Lee. On mainland China, he is viewed as a traitor, craving an independent Taiwan.

But with Soong at the helm, pursuing his version of a "sunshine policy" toward Beijing, China's Communists will have a hard time condemning Taiwan's democracy. Indeed, many reformers in China are hoping Soong will win.

For the past 20 years, Soong has been at the heart of Taiwan's political reforms. Partly at his urging, President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law in 1986 and took the first steps toward allowing political opposition. And he managed the first two democratic elections for the Nationalist Party.

For that reason, it is ironic that today Soong is viewed as the plucky challenger. The man trying to barge onto the presidential ballot is the same man who perfected the Nationalists' nomination process, which ensured that party elders control which candidates run. Now he wants to democratize the party's nomination process because it "cannot stand up to any democratic test," Soong said.

Soong's program for Taiwan's relations with China would also signal a major political change. Under a his government, Soong said, Taiwan would open the "three links" to China -- direct trade, shipping and mail. Lee has opposed this opening because he has said it would increase China's influence over Taiwan. But now, if a Taiwanese businessman wants to travel to China, he has to travel via Hong Kong, adding a day to his trip.

"One of the biggest challenges facing Taiwan is economic," Soong argued. "One of our solutions is . . . to become an Asian Pacific operations center for multinational companies. But if we don't have free access to the mainland, how can Taiwan be an Asian center?"

Soong also would curtail Taiwan's "dollar diplomacy" competition with China for diplomatic recognition from small, poor countries. He might even shelve its struggle to regain a seat in the United Nations.

Soong said he would play down Taiwan's push toward participating in an American-led theater missile defense (TMD) shield. He said investing in such a scheme, and placing hope in the United States to extend the system to cover Taiwan, would infuriate Beijing. "The best defense for Taiwan is democracy, not TMD," Soong said.

Additionally, Soong said he would be willing to begin a political dialogue with Beijing, marking a break with the policy of the Nationalist Party.

He emphasized, however, that none of these moves would be made without the support of all of Taiwan's major political parties, including the Democratic Progressive Party, the main opposition group, which in the past has said Taiwan should declare independence. And, he added, any agreements made between China and Taiwan would have to approved by all of Taiwan's voters in a plebiscite.

"What we should emphasize is the right to remain free, democratic and prosperous," Soong said, "but we shouldn't rule out the possibility of . . . a solution to the mainland problem. It doesn't mean we should surrender."