The young boy, the son of illiterate farmers, was so poor he walked the two kilometres to primary school barefoot and had only one set of clothes which he wore for six days and washed on the seventh while he wore only underwear. No-one in the village of Guantian, southwest Taiwan, imagined how high Chen Shui-bian might reach. Tomorrow, he could become only the second Taiwanese to be elected the island's president. Mr Chen, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, is being increasingly seen as the possible winner over Lien Chan of the ruling Kuomintang and independent James Soong Chu-yu. The possibility that Mr Chen could win on a pro-independence platform has infuriated Beijing leaders, who this week threatened war should he win. All this for a man who after he was born in a one-storey house in 1951 was so weak his mother feared he would not survive. 'I did not go to register the birth,' Chen Li-shen, who speaks only Taiwanese, says. 'I did not know if he would make it. He did not have a name. I went to a temple and found an 83-year-old nun who advised me that he needed water, so we put that character [Shui] in his name. He improved after that.' No-one knows his exact date of birth because the family kept no record of it. Mr Chen's father was a labourer, at the bottom of the social ladder. He had no land and did whatever work he could find, on farms or in shops or businesses, paid by the day. He died, aged 59, from liver cancer. Mrs Chen, 73, still lives in a small house in the same village of 3,000 people, who live by growing rice, vegetables and fruit. The Chens had four children and were constantly in debt. The children were born at home with only the help of neighbours - no doctors or midwives were present. 'He was a good boy, obedient and very studious,' Mrs Chen recalls. 'Other children came back from school with their clothes covered in mud and earth. But his clothes were clean. He was self-confident and knew that he wanted to be number one.' For Mr Chen, education was the only way to escape poverty. He was a brilliant student, finishing top of the class at primary school, junior high school and high school in the nearby city of Tainan, about 50 kilometres north of Kaohsiung. He then earned a scholarship to study law at National Taiwan University in Taipei, the island's most prestigious college. He was the only student from his primary school to go to university, recall his former classmates, sitting in a Buddhist temple in the centre of the village, most of them wearing the green and white jacket of the DPP. 'Most of us were what we used to call fang niu ban - after class we looked after the farm animals,' Yu Teng-kui said. 'Chen was one of the few who did well. But none of us could have imagined that he might one day be our president.' Mr Chen continued to study hard at university, working as a home teacher to earn money. During one visit home, he bought the family their first television. After graduation he was exempted from the compulsory two years military service because he was unable to hold a rifle after a childhood accident that left one of his arms slightly bent. In 1975, he married Wu Shu-jing, the daughter of a well-to-do Taipei doctor. Her parents initially opposed the marriage because of his family's poverty, but he won them over. The couple have one son and one daughter. Mr Chen started work as a lawyer, specialising in maritime work, eager to prove himself a worthy son-in-law. Politics was far from his mind. 'His father absolutely opposed his going into politics,' his mother recalls. 'He regarded it as very dangerous.' His father had good reason. From 1949 until 1987, the Kuomintang ruled Taiwan under martial law, using draconian laws and military courts to imprison and kill anyone suspected of dissent. One day in January 1980, a telephone call changed Mr Chen's life. It was from a lawyer friend asking if he would be willing to defend one of those arrested during an anti-government protest a month earlier in Kaohsiung. Mr Chen hesitated. To take on such a political case would put him on a government blacklist, deter business clients from hiring him and reduce his income. Nevertheless, as he wrote in his autobiography, A Son Of Taiwan, published last year: 'I knew I should defend the man . . . [but] I had to consider the safety of my family.' So, according to his book, he asked his wife, who answered: 'You know the man is innocent of treason and that if he is found guilty, he will be executed. If you do not take on the case, what is the point of being a lawyer?' Mr Chen lost the case but was enraged by the kind of justice he encountered. He met democracy activists, some of whom would found the DPP, the island's first opposition party, in 1986. In 1981, he was elected as an independent to the Taipei City Council. He continued his law practice but politics gradually took up more of his time. In January 1985, he and two others were fined NT$2 million and sentenced to a year in prison in a libel suit brought by the author of a book criticised as plagiarism in a magazine published by Mr Chen. In November that year, while the case was on appeal, he ran for the post of county chief of Tainan. On the eve of the poll, his mother-in-law received a letter threatening to kill Mr Chen and his wife. The next evening, after a narrow defeat, the couple went on a ride to thank his supporters. A car smashed into their vehicle, badly injuring his wife. Despite two major operations and six months in hospital, she lost the use of her legs. The investigation of the attempted assassination was cursory and no-one was arrested. After his appeal failed, Mr Chen finally went to prison in June 1986 and served eight months. While he was in prison, in September 1986, the DPP was established. Mr Chen went on to serve as a member of the national legislature and in July 1994 was elected mayor of Taipei, with 43.6 per cent of the votes, a post he held for four years. He lost the 1998 election despite receiving more votes than in 1994, because he faced a single Kuomintang opponent, whereas four years earlier, two candidates had split the rest of the votes. Last year the DPP picked him as its presidential candidate over more senior and powerful figures within the party because it judged him the most electable. Those who have met Mr Chen describe him as intelligent, studious, single-minded and determined. His mother says he does not drink, smoke or have girlfriends. He is a competent public speaker but without the fire and passion of some other DPP leaders. He speaks Taiwanese and Mandarin but no foreign languages. During the campaign, the party has successfully marketed him as a man of the people, running against two members of the ruling Americanised elite. Everyone, even his opponents, calls him 'A Bian', a term of affection. Television stations have broadcast a moving advertisement with black-and-white images of his hometown, his classmates and relatives, which ends with him saying all his family live in Taiwan and he has no money in foreign bank accounts. By contrast, the son and daughter-in-law of one of his two main opponents, Mr Soong, have US passports and properties in the US. Mr Soong was born on the mainland, the son of a general in the Nationalist army, while the other front-runner, Lien Chan, belongs to one of Taiwan's wealthiest families.