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.
THIS Republican, unlike MOST of his GOP collegues, seems to have some dignity and class.
I can't stand traitor's ! I wish this treasonous weasel would just crawl back under his rock ! If he does run he will get his clocked cleaned by President Obama if he even makes it out of the primaries !
Sorry but my vote, my energy, and my donations will go to the current President. We appreciate your service but I will never vote for another Republican again....well maybe my county Sheriff but that is about it.
Though this man seems to be reasonable but I do not think he is the right person who plans his things in advance. What was he thinking when he accepted the appointment of Ambassador in China in Obama Admin.? I fail to imagine how can he undergo the debate besides his former boss and oppose him while all these years he was supporting him!
This is just weird. The whole Republican line is be against President Obama all the time, regardless of what he does. Huntsman is no more than an opportunist to turn on the President. It's a requirement of a GOP candidate to lie, smear, and spread fear, hatred and division. That means turning on the very person and Administration he so recently represented.
Good thing the American people have so easily and quickly seen just what a self-serving weasel Huntsman is. With friends like this ...
TB: The "dignity" and "class" to turn on the man who appointed him ambassador.A much better description is "traitor" and "weasel."
Sure beats Palin who will run if no one else wants to and Rudy if someone can talk him into it and Bachmann if God gives her the go ahead. Republicans do not care about the majority and the sideshow characters make Hunstman look very good, but there is no way Americans are going to go backwards to the party that is hellbent on destroying the country for everyone but the ultra rich.
As a moderate who wants a choice in 2012, I am willing to listen to any candidate that is willing to debate the issues instead of relying on baseless personal attacks. Huntsman sounds like he is the former, and therefore I he has a shot at my vote. Hopefully we start hearing more about him.
Anyone who has spent time any where as a missionary trying to cram their own beliefs down the throat of others makes me nervous. I don't want a president who has a "moral" agenda trying to cast America's problems as pseudo-theological issues.
Although I am supporting Obama, Huntsman is the only republican candidate that seems reasonable, has not played the birther card, deather card and is respectful of the current President. It is nice to see a worthy candidate, even if I do not plan to vote for him, I appreciate seeing for the first time in a LONG while a GOP candidate that is not playing to the fringe and dregs of his party.
Huntsman's comments about service/duty to country are in direct violation of basic libertarian ideology. Republicans would be wise to choose him as their frontrunner.
He is the typical politician, saying what he has to say. Don't trust him.
Goodness more and more and more. I think the whole republican house is running. Are we now starting on the rest of the republican party. No matter, they're all dopes.
As of Pride, I am telling my vote goes to "PRESIDENT OBAMA". PERIOD. I pat myself for Obama, who did excellent work on Bin Laden.....Pakistan is not our ally, any one believing Pakistan is American ally is a total stupid...true...Obama knows this...OBAMA 2012!!!God bless obama and the USA!!!!
Finally, a Republican candidate who is NOT spending all of his/her time sucking up to the Tea Party.
Jimmy Carter thinks he would make a good candidate. That is the deathknell for this guy's campaign. He might as well quit a day fater announing he would run.
According to a politico story at the time of appointment:
"Viewed purely through the lens of 2012 politics, the move looks like political genius by the White House: It’s like John Edwards or John Kerry joining the Bush administration in 2001."
It is very doubtful that a member of the Church of the Latter Day Saints will ever make it to the White House. The LDS Church is too extreme even for the GOP. Sorry Jon, you may not make it pass the GOP primaries.
He's got the cheap, self-serving, superficial TAN, which is a lovely indicator of his true character.
Don't know much about him but from what I can see he beats the hell out of anyone else running so far.
He looks the look, but sounds like the rest of the usual republican zombie's in the party. It is all the candidates and all the party members? They just keep doing as they are told and saying what they are told to say!
How refreshing, a GOP candidate who doesn't resort to personal attacks or dirty political birther lies! Perhaps he will raise the level of politcal discourse out of the gutter.
Not remotely good enough, GOP!
And the Republicans have already lost the low country and midlands of South Carolina to the left and the middle. What's left of this former solid red state? One slice of the upstate, home of Bob Jones University, the most bigoted college on the east coast, claiming to be 'christian oriented'. The GOP – 'the moral high ground' ? Give us all a break....
He's a good, descent, and an intellignet guy. His domestic politics will surely differ, and some of his internaional approaches may differ from the current president, but he has credibility and a demonstrated willingness to work with people of another political party. he is the most unextreme candidate the republicans have. He defines a clear choice for them. I hope he runs because it will be good for the nation. Choice is good, a real substantive debate is good. A voice opposing extremist and conspiratorial views (if he shows one) will be welcome as well.
Sorry but we already have a young, creative, understanding , thoughtful President that is making great strides toward digging this country out of the HUGE hole that Republicans put us all in during the previous eight years!