Columbia, South Carolina (CNN) - In a commencement address Saturday at the University of South Carolina, his first public appearance since returning from Beijing to explore a Republican presidential bid, former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman painted his service in the Obama administration as a patriotic duty.
"Give back, as much as you're able," Huntsman told more than 11,000 graduates of the USC College of Arts and Sciences in Columbia. "Work to keep America great. Serve her, if asked. I was, by a president of a different political party. But in the end, while we might not all be of one party, we are all part of one nation, a nation that needs your generational gift of energy and confidence."
The speech was one of two commencement addresses Huntsman has scheduled in key primary states as he considers a White House bid, which GOP insiders believe is all-but-certain. He is also slated to speak to graduates of Southern New Hampshire University on May 21.
But while Huntsman sidestepped political talk in his remarks Saturday, his two-day visit to South Carolina was unmistakably designed to plant the seeds for a presidential campaign.
Huntsman was accompanied at the speech by several of his top political advisers, including the California-based advertising guru Fred Davis.
And Friday, Huntsman had a series of meetings in Columbia with local Republicans and a private sit-down with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose endorsement is being sought by every Republican in the field.
Questioned about his timeline for deciding on a bid following the meeting, Huntsman told reporters that "things are moving pretty quickly." When asked if he thinks the Republican field is ready for a new candidate, he said "there is always room for a new voice."
He echoed that sentiment on Saturday in his remarks, previewing what could be a campaign message.
"Our system needs new thinking," said Huntsman, who was twice elected governor of Utah before being appointed to the China post by President Obama in early 2009. "We need a fresh generation of innovators, leaders, risk takers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and activists."
Highlighting his foreign policy credentials, Huntsman rejected suggestions that the United States is falling behind China in the global economy.
"I know there are many in China who think their time has come, that America's best days are over," Huntsman said. "And, there are probably some in this country who have lost confidence and think that China is the next best thing. But these people aren't seeing things from my earlier vantage point of 10,000 miles away. The real test of a nation is not how well it does when times are good, but how well it does when times are tough. The way I saw it from overseas, America's passion remains as strong today as ever."
Huntsman, a keyboard player who rides a motorcycle, also sought to position himself as something of a hipper alternative to the candidates currently gunning for the Republican nomination.
He recalled how he kept his hair "Rod Stewart-shaggy" and wore "super skinny jeans" in his high school days, when he played in a rock band called Wizard.
"Wizard didn't make it, but I will never regret following my passion," he said. "Sometimes we take America for granted, sometimes we forget that we have the freedom to pursue any passion while many in this world do not."
He concluded his speech with a line from the band Ben Folds Five and told the graduates, "Never forget to rock n' roll."
Huntsman will spend the next week in Florida, Pennsylvania, New York and Washington, D.C. meeting with Republican leaders and donors.