STEVEN R. HURST/Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Once deeply vulnerable, President Barack Obama has seen his fortunes take a dramatic turn for the better as the Republican Party splits between its historic business-friendly establishment and the powerful tug of more conservative and social issues voters.

Burdened throughout his term by the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, Obama was expected to be hard pressed to hold on the White House in November.

But eight months before Election Day, things have changed. That's partly because the economy is finally showing signs of a sustained recovery.

But the new wind at Obama's back blowing just as powerfully is the GOP nominating fight, which is dragging Republican candidates deep into conservative fights over social issues - territory from which may be hard for the final GOP nominee to escape.

With divisive social issues dominating their nominating contest, will the Republicans be able to eventually win over the non-ideological independent voters deemed critical in this fall's election?

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and once politically moderate multimillionaire venture capitalist, remains the Republican front-runner ahead of the Super Tuesday voting in 10 states, which will allocate 419 delegates to the party convention in late August. Romney is well ahead in the battle for the 1,144 needed to capture the nomination.

But Romney has been repeatedly knocked off his economic message, especially by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who is courting the most motivated Republican voters: the low-tax, small government tea party wing of the party and evangelical Christians who are profoundly attracted to his stands against abortion and contraception and on other social issues.

Many conservative Republicans don't trust Romney and his moderate past. But he has, so far, been able to ride out that aversion because Santorum has had to split the anti-Romney vote with rival Newt Gingrich.

The latest social issue to rile the campaign has been whether religious-sponsored organizations should be required to provide their employees with health insurance coverage that includes free contraception.

An uproar, mostly among Catholic leaders who reject contraception on moral grounds, forced Obama to change the birth control mandate. The new plan would require insurance companies that cover workers in religious organizations - and not the religious organizations themselves - to offer the coverage.

Just as the contentious issue started to fade a bit, Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio personality, forced it front and center once again: On the air three days last week, Limbaugh called a Georgetown University law student who had spoken out in favor of the Obama plan a "slut" and a "prostitute" who wanted the government to pay her for having sex.

The counter-uproar over those remarks and a backlash among advertisers forced Limbaugh to issue a highly unusual apology Saturday. Republicans, who normally shy away from criticism of Limbaugh's powerful voice, joined in distancing themselves from words that drew bipartisan condemnation.

But the issue seemed certain to deepen the concerns of many women voters, who - along with the broad spectrum of all independents - will likely determine the ultimate outcome in November. Polls show women are already turning back to Obama.

Despite his seemingly better political position, Obama continues to face huge unknowns that could still cast a shadow over his re-election prospects: Among them, the still fragile economy and numerous foreign policy uncertainties between now and November.

The price of gasoline, driven by uncertainty over Mideast oil supplies because of a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, is higher than it has ever been this time of year. That's a ready-made line of attack for Republicans and one that Gingrich now is making the centerpiece of his campaign.

And, as employers have begun hiring again, bringing the jobless rate down to 8.3 percent, it is highly likely that workers who stopped looking for a new job will re-enter the hunt and drive up that closely watched indicator of the economic recovery.

When the dust settles from the Republican primary fight, odds remain heavily in favor of Romney because of his organization in what's expected to be a lengthy fight for delegates. And if he wins the nomination, disaffected Republicans most likely will rally to his cause.

Overriding nearly every issue with Republican party voters is a dislike of Obama, particularly his health care law that forces all Americans to buy health insurance. And in a general election against Obama, Romney is likely to appeal to independents more than the more-conservative Santorum or Gingrich would.

The question could boil down to how much the current GOP focus on social issues will alienate that key bloc of independents, once the party's nominee turns its focus to beating Obama.

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EDITOR'S NOTE - Steven R. Hurst is The Associated Press' international political writer in Washington.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

3/4/2012 2:49:06 PM (GMT -5:00)