Huntsman is on a three-day visit to South Carolina, a state that will hold one of the nation's first 2012 primaries. He met with the state's Republican governor and with political activists. The former ambassador, a Mormon, is scheduled to visit Seacoast Church, a non-denominational congregation near Charleston, on Sunday.
"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," Huntsman told the more than 1,100 graduates on Saturday.
China's growing economic power doesn't diminish the potential that remains in the U.S., Huntsman said.
"Our free and open society that can respectfully embrace debate, coupled with a free-market system that rewards risk and innovation, is still the envy of the world," he said. "We are still as full of potential as ever."
Speaks Mandarin • Huntsman, 51, who speaks Mandarin Chinese and was previously the ambassador to Singapore under former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, is scheduled to give a commencement address on May 21 in New Hampshire, another early voting state. A father of seven, Huntsman became fluent in Mandarin during his time as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan.
His training as an ambassador, he said, has often discouraged frankness.
"The real secret about diplomats is that we're trained to say something, when there is nothing to say, and to say nothing when there is something to say," he said.
The former diplomat also talked about his upbringing, as he sought to present his life story for consideration by voters.
"My initial passion in life was to be a rock-and-roll musician," he said. "In my teens, you wouldn't have recognized me. My hair was Rod Stewart shaggy."
Tortured activist •He reminded the graduates to cherish their freedom, recounting a recent visit he made to the apartment of a human-rights activist in China who had been tortured.
"Sometimes we take America for granted," he said. "Sometimes we forget that we have freedom to pursue any passion, while many in this world do not."
If he does enter the race, Huntsman told reporters May 6 that he doesn't intend to use his family's fortune to finance a campaign. His family runs Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Corp., a global chemical company, and is one of the wealthiest in Utah.
"If we were to get in the race, no self-financing," he said at the South Carolina state capitol, in his first extensive comments to reporters since he resigned. "Unless you can raise it legitimately, you don't win. I learned that running for governor."
Huntsman is the son of billionaire businessman and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. The family's business has about 12,000 employees worldwide and had 2010 revenue of more than $9 billion, according to the company's website.
Gay unions • As governor, Huntsman came under criticism from some in his own party for supporting civil unions for gay couples and for making Utah part of a regional alliance aimed at developing goals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
Huntsman, who was starting his second term as Utah's governor when he took the ambassador's job, said he remains interested in public service.
"I haven't been unemployed in a long time," he told reporters. "We're looking at our future and seriously considering our options and taking a good, serious look at maintaining some level of activity in public service."
Huntsman created a federal political action committee last week. He offered no specifics on when he might enter the Republican race, in which he would be seeking to oust from office the man who sent him to Beijing.
No timeline •"I wouldn't want to suggest that there's a timeline, other than to say that things are moving pretty quickly and whatever timelines one is looking at, can't be more than a couple of months," he said.
Other Republicans considering possible bids include former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who is considering a third run for the White House.
The lack of a clear Republican front-runner has encouraged others, including Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Tea Party favorite, and real estate developer Donald Trump to position themselves for potential runs.