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This two-part paper deals with the early detection of an impending voltage instability from the system states provided by synchronized phasor measurements. Recognizing that voltage instability detection requires assessing a multidimensional system, the method fits a set of algebraic equations to the sampled states, and performs an efficient sensitivity computation in order to identify when a combination of load powers has passed through a maximum. The important effects of overexcitation limiters are accounted for. The approach does not require any load model. This first part of the paper is devoted to theoretical foundations of sensitivity calculation along the system trajectory, derivation of the algebraic model, and illustration on a simple five-bus system involving the long-term dynamics of a load tap changer and a field current limiter.