One reason for panic in the Obama ranks is the disappearing gender gap. It is axiomatic that Democratic presidential candidates must win the women’s vote by a strong margin, for it is nearly certain they will lose the men’s vote.

The history of the gender gap is a compelling reminder of how critical women are to Democratic presidential contenders. In 2008, President Obama won women by a 56 to 43 percent margin. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won the women’s vote by a 51 to 48 percent margin (and lost the race). In 2000. Al Gore won women 54 to 43. Bill Clinton won the women’s vote both in 1996 (54 to 38 percent) and 1992 (45 to 37 percent).

So when a USA Today headline reads: “Women push Romney into lead,” in reference to its swing state polling, that is a very big deal and reason for alarm by Democrats.

In the first presidential debate, President Obama didn’t get to do his “Republicans will take away your birth control” routine. He didn’t get to pander about Lily Ledbetter legislation. Moreover, his sullen mode, and VP Biden, in his manic debate appearance, don’t exactly ooze warmth and empathy, which many women voters like to see. Moreover, Mitt Romney’s messaging of late (focused on middle-class income, rising health-care costs) has found resonance with women voters, who are often the budgeters and health-care managers for their families.

In this context, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s action in stepping forward to accept (at least part of) the blame for Libya couldn’t come at a worse time for the Obama campaign. The appearance that she is taking a bullet for the president, or is the only senior official among a phalanx of men to own up to errors is not one the Obama team can afford to take hold. Among former Clinton presidential supporters, it is certainly doubly distasteful that after Obama failed to pick her as his running mate in 2008 and 2012, she’s the most visible target of blame. (You recall, National Intelligence Director James Clapper didn’t have the guts to own up to intelligence errors himself and instead had an aide put out a written statement under the spokesman’s name on a Friday afternoon.)

Is Obama going to solve this growing problem by playing the Sandra Fluke card? By being warm and fuzzy? (His former aide and now head of the left-wing Center for American Progress Neera Tanden says, “It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people.”) Will he absolve Clinton of blame and apologizing to the American people? It will sure be interesting to see how the Obama team tries to stem the defection of women voters.