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*-- GOP presidential hopefuls rip Obama; Bush defends religion in public life --*

GREENVILLE, S.C. (UPI) - With just under 550 days to go before the United States selects its next president, some Republican candidates are hitting the trail hard.

In South Carolina on Saturday, two of the GOP's potential nominees received a rousing applause after slamming President Barack Obama's White House -- and in Virginia, the third potential President Bush tried to round up as much conservative support as he can get.

Just another day on the path to 2016.

At a speaking event in Greenville, S.C., Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum took turns stirring the coals at Obama's feet -- a tactic that charged up a wildly passionate crowd.

The most popular targets for the pair were what they view as Obama's foreign policy failures, softness on terrorism and reckless apathy for the United States' standing in the world.

"We need a leader who will have the courage to look the American people in the eye, and to tell them what might not be easy to say," Scott said. "That is, 'this will not take a day, it might not take a week, it might not take a month or even a year ... but it's not a question of if another attempt is made on our soil, it's a question of when.'"

The first-term governor, who said he will run as a conservative, has repeatedly denounced Obama's handling of terrorism and believes the administration hasn't acted sufficiently to guard the United States and national interests against the growing Islamic State threat.

"We need a president who will affirm that Israel is our ally and start acting like it," he added.

Walker, Wisconsin's governor since 2011, in January formed a political committee to assist his run for president. He ran for the GOP nomination in 2012 but lost to Mitt Romney.

Moments after Walker finished, like a tag-team match, Santorum rose to the dais and essentially picked up right where the governor left off.

"Heck, I would just be happy if the president would be able to tell the difference between our friends and our enemies," he said. "Let me give the current president a little primer. Iran: enemy. Israel: friend."

The duo's words were loudly and soundly well-received by a group of about 2,000 grass-roots GOP activists, who made the most noise whenever either of the two stuck it to the Obama White House.

"What the president has is a public relations stunt," Santorum said, implying that Obama has been passive on combating the Islamic State. "If these people want to bring back a 7th Century version of Islam ... then let's load our bombers up and bomb them back to the 7th Century."

Santorum even questioned whether defense officials have engaged IS fighters in a bombing campaign -- something the Pentagon has repeatedly said is happening. Thousands of such bombings have been launched since last summer, defense officials say, and 28 additional bombings have occurred since Friday.

Santorum, who served as a senator from Pennsylvania between 1995 and 2007, is expected to officially declare he's joining the race later this month.

He and Walker, though, are far from the party's only potential 2016 nominees. Saturday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush visited Virginia to deliver a commencement speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, a Christian college that's become a popular stop for Republicans.

Instead of attacking Obama's foreign policy, though, the man who would become the third U.S. President Bush focused his speech Saturday on defending religion in public service.

"Fashionable ideas and opinions, which these days can be a religion all by itself, have got a problem with Christians and their right of conscience," he told the crowd of about 34,000. "That makes it our problem, and the proper response is a forthright defense of the first freedom in our Constitution."

Bush is trying to assuage evangelicals' concern that he is not conservative enough on issues like same-sex marriage, immigration, religious protection and abortion.

"Wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say 'choose life,' and we say it with love," he said, which drew hearty applause.

Bush also defended making religion a significant part of contemporary life -- saying American faithful are getting an undeserved reputation as "intolerant scolds, running around trying to impose their views on everyone."

The former Florida governor has not yet officially declared he will run for president, but he has alluded to that prospect and is seen by many analysts as one of the GOP's best chances to win the White House in 2016.

In March, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz declared his candidacy at Liberty University and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Monday also threw his hat into the ring.


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