ichele Bachmann has a one-word strategy for her presidential candidacy: Iowa.

From the earliest and best days of her campaign to these final days of 2011, her hopes of winning the Republican nomination have depended on a victory in the Iowa caucuses. In the summer, Bachmann was in the thick of the competition there. Today she is struggling to avoid a finish that would cripple her bid.

Her advisers remain upbeat. They express confidence that the organization she is building in Iowa will produce a surprisingly strong result on Jan. 3. Surveys tell a different story. In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll of Iowa Republicans, Bachmann was running fifth, at 8 percent, a tick ahead of Rick Santorum.

The Minnesota congresswoman was an unlikely entrant into the Republican presidential race, but if she has demonstrated anything, it is the confidence and wherewithal to do the unexpected. Many thought Sarah Palin would be the presidential candidate who would try to corral the support of tea party activists. But Bachmann got there first, making waves in Iowa in the spring as Palin’s star was fading.

Bachmann won two early battles. The first was finishing on top in the Iowa straw poll in August. The second, which flowed from the first, was driving fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, a former governor, from the race. At the start of the year, no one would have predicted that Pawlenty would be out and Bachmann still running as the leaves began to turn in Iowa.

Inexplicably, the straw poll victory proved to be the high point of Bachmann’s campaign. Her descent from top tier came swiftly and, for her team, unexpectedly. She was overshadowed by the entry of Rick Perry. In his first weeks as a candidate, he grabbed many of the tea party supporters who were originally in her corner. When Perry fell, it was Herman Cain and not Bachmann who picked up the pace. When Cain began to slide, Newt Gingrich captured the headlines and the supporters that once might have been hers.

Bachmann, an Iowa native, has been a vigorous presence in the GOP debates, although she has fretted over the lack of attention she has received from the various moderators. She has not been afraid to take on the front-runners. She has gone after Mitt Romney, after Gingrich, after Cain. She led a sharp attack on Perry over his decision as Texas governor to mandate vaccinations of young girls against a virus that causes cervical cancer. The issue was part of his undoing.

She has been a tireless campaigner as well, working Iowa as hard as anyone with the possible exception of Santorum. But when Iowa Republicans were asked which candidate they definitely would not vote for, Bachmann was at the top of the field. Almost a quarter of potential caucus-goers named her.

Campaign manager Keith Nahigian said Bachmann is underestimated in Iowa. He sees the race narrowing to a four-way contest — Bachmann, Gingrich, Romney and Ron Paul. “We’re the only conservative in that group,” he said. “She’s the only one who connects with all the different parts of the conservative movement.”

More than ever, Iowa is crucial to Bachmann’s strategy.