EDINBURGH: The steely and polished Scottish independence leader Nicola Sturgeon has emerged as an unlikely star of Britain's unpredictable election race and could decide who is prime minister after Thursday's election.
Once little known south of the border, Sturgeon's formidable performances in election debates have made her one of the most talked-about figures in the campaign - despite not running for a seat in Westminster herself.
The Scottish first minister has criticised austerity and advocated the SNP as a "progressive force" with quick humour and a clipped Scottish accent that have cut a swathe through Britain's male-dominated politics.
Right-wing newspapers have dubbed her the "most dangerous woman in Britain" and a Conservative attack poster depicted her as a puppet master pulling the strings.
Nevertheless, she is the most popular political leader in Britain according to a TNS poll, which gave her an 33 percent approval rating compared with seven percent for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
Labour leader Ed Miliband scored minus eight in the TNS poll, which adds negative ratings to positive for a net score.
Although it failed to win independence for Scotland in a referendum last year, the SNP has enjoyed a surge in support that has seen its membership quadruple since the September vote.
The party is expected to oust Labour from its traditional strongholds in Scotland and become the third-largest party in the British parliament.
Neither the Conservatives nor Labour are predicted to win enough seats to govern alone - and Sturgeon has offered to help Miliband become prime minister.
"We have a chance to kick David Cameron out of Downing Street," Sturgeon told Miliband in a TV debate last month. "Don't turn your back on it. People will never forgive you."
Miliband has insisted he will not do a "deal" with the SNP, though he could form a minority government and pass bills with their support.
"It is clearly evident that Nicola Sturgeon's performance during the campaign has resonated well with the electorate... even amongst those outside Scotland who cannot choose to vote SNP," said Tom Costley, head of pollster TNS Scotland.
"Her strong performance in the media coverage of the campaign also appears to have counteracted the attempts... to paint the SNP as 'a clear and present danger' to Britain."
Queen of Scots
A former lawyer labelled "Queen of Scots" by some media, Sturgeon cuts a distinctive figure with her short hair and colourful tailored suits, and argues for socially conscious policies she says Labour has left behind.
The 44-year-old was born in the industrial town of Irvine, southwest of Glasgow, in 1970 to an electrician father and a mother who remains active in local SNP politics.
She joined the SNP aged 16, becoming politicised in the 1980s under Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, widely disliked in Scotland.
She studied law at Glasgow University and stood unsuccessfully for the House of Commons in 1992, aged just 21, before starting her career as a lawyer.
When the Scottish Parliament was created in 1999, Sturgeon entered major league politics as one of its first wave of lawmakers.
Her nickname at that stage was "nippy sweetie" - Scots slang for a pushy person.
Since 2007, the SNP has been in power in Scotland and Sturgeon, married to the party's chief executive Peter Murrell, was health minister for much of that time.
Sturgeon was put in charge of the party's campaign for the 2014 independence referendum and helped build a grassroots "Yes" movement that fostered unprecedented political engagement in the country.
After 55 per cent of voters rejected independence, Sturgeon took over as SNP leader from her mentor Alex Salmond, who had dominated the party for quarter of a century, becoming Scotland's first female first minister.
"It's the first time a woman has been head of the party and I think it sends a strong message, she is an inspiration to all the little girls," said Stacey Devine, a 28-year-old single mother and SNP member in Edinburgh.
In her spare time, Sturgeon admits to relaxing with a glass of red wine and watching Danish hit television show "Borgen", about a female politician who unexpectedly finds herself prime minister.