A presidential election described widely as a "turning point" here is still seven months away. But in Taiwan's political time, that is close at hand - and both senior US administration officials and the architects of Taiwan's recent shift to multiparty democracy are starting to worry.
The problem as they see it: A widespread malaise and even disillusion among ordinary Taiwanese about a fragile reform movement that in 2000 unseated 50 years of the KMT's one-party rule and carved out a distinct political identity for Taiwan, separate from mainland China.
It is not impossible to contemplate the return of an old pro-China guard, say analysts - that would reverse the present status quo, and bring Taiwan strongly into the ethnic logic and gravitational pull of China, Inc.
So concerned are some US officials over the future of the strategic island that some are starting to ask: Who lost Taiwan?
One measure of the problems faced by the ruling pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party, headed by President Chen Shui-bian, is the growing unease felt by their strongest supporters. [Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the party headed by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian.]
Talk about hard-core support for a separate Taiwan, for example, and you are talking about Jim Chan and his family. Mr. Chan, an IT professional in his 30s, worked in Europe, but is now back debating whether to take over the family firm. The Chans, all generations, are strong Presbyterians. That church, long a dissenting voice, is so pro-independence that in 1971 it held an assembly calling for two UN seats for China: One for the mainland People's Republic, one for the island of Taiwan.
So, four years ago when the pro-Taiwan forces of President Chen ousted the pro-unification KMT, the Chans were ecstatic.
But not any more. Chan is disillusioned about a party and a president he sees "fumbling" and handing out political spoils in the same way the autocratic KMT did. Chan isn't sure how he will cast his vote. "I'm looking for other options, but not finding any," he says.
"Is Taiwan going to sink into the mire of dependency on China, and slowly become just another regional economic zone for Beijing?" asks a Bush administration official. "Or will they preserve an economic, political, and cultural identity as the only democracy in the Chinese world? Right now, it doesn't look good for the latter outcome."
Taiwan's economy, once one of the highest performing in Asia, is lethargic. Last quarter, again, performance dropped. Taiwan is moving from high-tech to a service base. But the public worries about a quality of life that had long been unquestioned.
The US used to be Taiwan's top trading partner; now China is. Taiwan's problem economy has been a boon for the opposition. They say the DPP's platform for independence is the cause of economic woes - with Mr. Chen as the chief obstructionist to progress.
Moreover, the pro-Taiwan camp faces a significant new alliance in Taiwanese politics between the two largest "pro-China" camps. The KMT has joined with the People's First Party of the charismatic James Soong, the former Governor of Taiwan Province. In the last election, KMT and Soong split their votes, with Soong peeling off votes like Ross Perot did in recent US elections. [Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly identified politician James Soong.]
Now the "pan-blue" coalition, as they are known, plan to share power, and in polls they score as much as eight points ahead of Chen. Early this month, the KMT won elections in Hualien County; the victory is viewed by some as a precursor of the March national vote.
What the pan-blue coalition offers as an antidote are so-called "direct links" with China. This means direct flights, KMT officials say, starting between Taipei and Shanghai, where 200,000 Taiwanese now work. Talks between Taiwan and China are shut down over a fundamental disagreement about the definition of "one China"; business people must fly into China via Hong Kong, an irritating inconvenience. KMT officials say if elected they will immediately move to begin talks with Beijing.
"We don't trust the communists, but we have a strong belief that the mainland will change. We are optimistic about a 'win-win' solution," says KMT spokesman Justin Chou. "We will start talks right after we are elected. We don't view China as the enemy, the way Chen Shui-bian does."
So concerned that Taiwan is about to hand over its birthright for a bowl of porridge, pro-Taiwan forces held a conference here last week - attended by President Chen, and organized by former president Lee Teng-hui, the spiritual godfather of democracy in Taiwan, and persona non grata in Beijing.
Mr. Lee described the March elections as "the most important choice Taiwan's people will face.... If Taiwan cannot defend its hard-won democratic achievements and allows the resurrection of a conservative power, the country will be forced to live under the shadow of the 'one China' principle."
An issue that gets little public attention, though it underlies much of the pro-unification impulse, is ethnicity. The KMT argues that a separate political identity for Taiwan is unrealistic. The reason: Chinese blood runs thicker than constitutions, politics, or notions of independence, they say.
One advocate for this view is KMT spokesman Mr. Chou. A far cry from the party functionaries of old, he is one of a fresh faced new breed of KMT officials. He studied TV broadcasting at Emerson College in Boston, and was a popular news anchor on late night TV before becoming KMT spokesman. He meets visitors in a specially lit office crowded with hi-tech toys, furry dolls, Hollywood posters, three TVs, bowls of candy, and a saxophone displayed in a corner.
"The bottom line is that we are all Chinese," says Chou. "We think Beijing could be more democratic. But our ultimate aim is to unify with mainland China. We can wait until Beijing becomes more democratic, however long that takes."
Taiwan is claimed by Beijing as part of China's sovereign homeland. Beijing has threatened war should Taiwan declare independence. The island sits astride a key shipping lane between South Asia and North Asia, and Beijing also claims much of the South China Sea, down to Indonesia.
The clash dates to the civil war in China. The nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek fled in 1949 to what was then called Formosa, bringing much of the imperial treasure with them. They took over in a quick and bloody purge, and ruled as autocrats. Chiang hoped to retake the mainland, and only in the 90s did the dream died out.
The KMT's martial law ended in 1987, and a multiparty system emerged as part of a "Taiwanese identity" movement. The losers were old guard KMT, mostly mainlanders. The DPP, legalized in 1989, is a "big tent" of many groups, including women, antinuclear activists, aborigines, Christians, and ethnic Taiwanese - who argue they were always excluded, despite being a majority.
Taiwan is not a creation of the nationalists, nor a vassal state of China, say the "new guard." They claim a separate identity, history, language, and culture. National pride swelled as Taiwan became the world's leading exporter of semiconductors.
In the 2000 elections, Beijing's thundering threats of war if the vote went to a pro-independence party, helped Chen and the DPP.
Next March, however, Chen may face elections without a bellicose China to anger voters. Beijing has embarked on a "soft offensive" strategy that emphasizes quieter tones and less military finger wagging.
"China thinks it has time on its side," says one leading academic here.
The election may be a benchmark for Beijing, too, analysts say - determining whether China's rulers will have to take Chen and his party seriously.
Chen does have some issues. During the SARS crisis, dismay with China was heightened when Beijing insisted upon controlling the access of World Health Organization visits here.
There is also Hong Kong. China has promised Taiwan even greater autonomy than Hong Kong has if it unifies. But huge street protests in Hong Kong over Beijing's unwanted influence in managing the former British colony is grist for DPP political mills.
Mostly, the DPP needs to nurture the economy, experts say. The legislature just passed a $2.2 billion stimulus package. It also has some new levers to attract international capital flow via the Morgan Stanley index.
"The DPP is not the cause of the economic downturn.... The global economy has been the problem," says a top economist here who requested anonymity. "Chen is called obstructionist for not allowing access to China. That's nonsense. Investment, trade, and faster growth with China are booming. It is an economic phenomenon, and you can't stop it. It is happening without anyone making a policy.
"What's needed is eight years, not four years, to adjust," he argues. "The KMT had 50 years."
Chan, the Presbyterian IT professional, is dubious. "The DPP doesn't need four more years. What Taiwan needs is four more years without the KMT."