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As two prominent GOP women fade, a question of how to woo female voters

Jim Mone / AP file

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., left, waves to the rally crowd as Sarah Palin looks on before Paliln addressed the crowd in support of Bachmann's re-election on April 7, 2010 in Minneapolis.

Michele Bachmann's taking a bow. Sarah Palin's star has faded. With the brassy, blow-dried bombasts of the GOP moving to the sidelines, there's no elected heir apparent to inherit the mantle and carry the conservative crusade forward on the national stage.

What does that mean for a Republican Party struggling to woo the women voters it needs to win national elections?

It may be for the best, say some of the GOP operatives who have been pushing the party to rebrand itself after its 2012 losses. 

"They and their style gives short shrift to other women in the GOP," said Sara Taylor Fagen, a longtime Republican strategist who worked on Mitt Romney's first presidential campaign. "And so the risk for the party is when they become the only face. It does have the possibility of alienating groups of women, and that is a challenge."

Part of the problem? While they are women themselves, polls show Palin and Bachmann actually appeal predominantly to men -- and as such might not be the best messengers to female voters. 

NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls taken at the height of each woman's political career -- Palin in October 2008, when she was on the presidential ticket, and Bachmann in August 2011, when she won the coveted Iowa presidential straw poll -- showed that they were best liked at that time among men over 50. During those periods, just 38 percent of women had a favorable view of Palin, and only 19 percent of women liked Bachmann.

Contrast that with Hillary Clinton, arguably the most famous woman in Democratic politics, and the opposite is true: She's wildly popular with women (62 percent had a favorable view in April 2013) and less so with men (49 percent).

That's not to say Palin and Bachmann don't have their defenders. The Susan B. Anthony List works to elect anti-abortion women candidates, and the group's president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, argues that both women were trailblazers and role models for anti-abortion, stay-at-home moms who might not otherwise believe they were capable of running for office.

She says Palin and Bachmann have been unfairly ostracized and ridiculed -- not just by Democrats, but by Republicans, too.

"They both became very isolated in elite circles, in Republican circles," Dannenfelser said. "They've gotten immense grassroots support, but then what they experience among the elite in D.C., and board rooms in New York -- they're reviled."

Luis Sanchez Saturno / Santa Fe New Mexican via AP

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.

So who are the Republican Party's next famous female faces, and can they win with women? There's no Hillary-type figure in today's GOP -- nor are there any well known, ideological firebrands in the Palin-Bachmann mold who are up-and-coming. South Carolina's Tea Party-backed governor, Nikki Haley, comes close, but she's struggling with low approval ratings and an upcoming tough race against Democrat Vincent Sheheen to hang on to her job.

Instead, the party's best known women officeholders -- Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and U.S. senators like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Susan Collins of Maine -- are moderate in tone if not always in substance. 

Martinez has shown a willingness to work across party lines. Collins is known as a key player in cutting bipartisan deals in the Senate. Ayotte has kept her focus on national security -- and largely eschewed the conservative hot buttons that made Bachmann and Palin household names.

"She has avoided controversy in her first two years," said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, of Ayotte. "She's not out there carrying a torch on conservative issues."

And that approach could help the party woo women, says Fagen, the Republican strategist. She pointed to Martinez as an example.

Alex Wong / Getty Images, file

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) speaks during a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"I think that's where the party needs to go -- we need to have much more thoughtful conservatism. When we are thoughtful in communicating our message, we attract people," she said.

So far, Republicans haven't been able to translate conservative enthusiasm for women like Palin and Bachmann into populist support for more moderate women and concrete electoral gains at the national level -- though in 2010, at the peak of Tea Party enthusiasm, more GOP women ran for national office than ever before. 

"Look out, Washington, cause there's a whole stampede of pink elephants crossing the line and the ETA stampeding through is November 2, 2010," Palin declared in the famous "Mama Grizzly" video she released in June of that year. Republicans declared 2010 "the year of the GOP woman."

And it turned out to be a pretty good year for them. Three Republican women won governorships -- Martinez in New Mexico, Haley in South Carolina and Mary Fallin in Oklahoma -- and the party added one additional woman senator and seven more women House members.

Still, only a third of the GOP women who ran in 2010 survived their primary elections. And the gains didn't all stick. Two years later, in 2012, women were elected to Congress in record numbers -- 20 senators and 80 representatives and delegates in the House. But the number of GOP women slid, from 24 to 19 in the House and from five to four in the Senate.

And while Palin has lost her gig on Fox News, draws less attention with her Facebook posts, and had favored Senate candidate Sarah Steelman lose a primary in Missouri, she still played a key role in helping to elect almost all of the elected Republican women who now have national profiles. She endorsed Ayotte, Haley, Martinez and Fallin during their primaries, and she played a singular role in electing Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who took office this winter.

Says Jason Recher, who advises the conservative SHE PAC, where a former Palin aide is the treasurer: "You look at the Palin legacy and you look at the people she supported really, really early on, and those are the people that are the future."

Either way, Democrats say substituting a more moderate tone isn't going to help the GOP win over women who are simply more aligned with the left on the issues.

"Republicans consistently make this mistake where they think that the problem is the messenger," said Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the group EMILY's List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. "They don't have a messenger problem, they have a substance problem."

NBC News Deputy Political Director Domenico Montanaro contributed to this report.

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