TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's ruling party on Saturday named its chairman to run for the island's top spot in coming national elections, replacing an existing pick in a move aimed at avoiding a trouncing by an opposition it fears could derail warming ties with China.

The Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT) in Chinese, drafted in Eric Chu as its presidential candidate at an extraordinary party congress, while at the same time revoking its previous pick.

"We have a new start," Chu told an auditorium of nearly 1,000 party members, using Taiwan's official name. "We want to not only ensure our right to rule...but also the future of the Republic of China."

Chu replaces Hung Hsiu-chu, a former school teacher, who was approved by the party only three months ago, but had been badly trailing in opinion polls against presidential front-runner, Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The DPP, which has traditionally favored the island's formal independence, says it believes only Taiwan's people can decide its future. Beijing takes this to mean it wants independence.

Beijing has deemed self-ruled Taiwan a renegade province to be taken back by force if necessary following the end of a Chinese civil war in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island after being defeated by Mao Zedong's Communists.

Taiwanese go to the polls in January to vote in a new president and a new legislature.

Chu, 54, the mayor of New Taipei City, the sprawling metropolis that surrounds the capital, succeeded Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou as chairman of the Nationalist party when Ma resigned the post after the ruling party suffered a surprising defeat in local elections in November last year.

Chu will still find it difficult to overtake Tsai, but party members hope with him leading the election charge, the Nationalists will have a better shot at winning enough legislative seats in the 113-seat parliament to have a significant voice in the lawmaking agenda.