DES MOINES - Michele Bachmann believes in miracles.

Battered in the polls, facing dwindling crowds on Monday and still recovering from a couple of high-level defections, the Minnesota Republican is approaching Tuesday's much-anticipated Iowa caucuses like the biblical struggle of Jonathan against the Philistines.

"Don't for one minute think your adversity is one that can't be scaled," she told members of the Jubilee Family Church in Oskaloosa, where she was invited to speak for Sunday services.

Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses mark the official start of the 2012 presidential campaign, with GOP poll leaders Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum vying for a big push in what has been a fluid, wide-open race.

For Bachmann, it could feel more like the finish line. If the three-term congresswoman does not outperform her flagging poll numbers, she could become the first presidential candidate to win the Iowa straw poll in August and finish last in the January caucuses.

In the closing hours of what has been a brutal contest, Bachmann and her campaign workers are trying to maintain a positive outlook, vowing to shock the political world with a surging end-game based on the many still-undecided voters in the state.

"Tomorrow night we are going to see a miracle, because we know the one who gives miracles," Bachmann said Monday night at a rally outside her headquarters in Urbandale.

A reporter's suggestion that polls might indicate that Bachmann's campaign is near the end was met with a sharp rebuke on Saturday. "Of course I'm in the race," Bachmann snapped when a journalist asked whether a poor showing in Iowa might force her out of the race. "Does anybody have a real question?"

Bachmann campaign volunteers, working phone banks for 12-hour stretches, say they have been tuning out the news.

"We're trying to just ignore everything up here on TV and that, like the polls," said David King, one of 42 students from Oklahoma's Oral Roberts University who came to help Bachmann. "We're trying to get a late rally going."

The students were to ring a bell every time one got a supporter on the phone to caucus for Bachmann. During an hour-long visit on Saturday, reporters heard few bells ring.

Another group of students provided the backdrop Monday when Bachmann visited several small businesses in West Des Moines. As Bachmann vowed to be America's next leader, the high schoolers cheered and held up her blue campaign placards.

None, it turned out, could actually vote for Bachmann in the caucus. All 44 students came as part of their advanced placement government class in Cincinnati.

Jacob Webb, a 16-year-old holding a Bachmann placard, said he was merely an interested observer. "We're just trying to take it all in," he said. Between the out-of-state students, the media throng and a number of curious onlookers -- some wearing Ron Paul buttons -- there appeared to be only a smattering of actual Bachmann supporters at the event.

Bachmann said that no matter how the Iowa caucuses turn out, she plans to travel to South Carolina on Wednesday, where conservative Christians and Tea Party members are a potent force in GOP politics.

But Iowa was always her best shot at victory and legitimacy on the national stage. Since announcing her candidacy in June from her hometown of Waterloo, Bachmann has focused on the state like a doting mother, never failing to tell voters she is a seventh-generation Iowan.

On Monday, with only hours to go before Iowans go to the caucuses, Bachmann, who placed last in a weekend Des Moines Register poll, would have none of it.

"The poll that we saw is the one we saw in the last 99 counties, and it was overwhelming," she said.

"It was like an electric light switch was flipped on .... We saw literally thousands of people make their decision on the spot. They're our best advocates."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.