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Columbia, S.C. • In his first public speech since resigning as U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican considering a presidential run, steered clear of politics, left out the fireworks and focused instead on salient advice to graduates of the University of South Carolina.
The former Utah governor did, however, offer what might be his best argument for why he served as an ambassador for the Obama administration, which may be a concern for Republican voters in this key primary state.
"Give back as much as you're able," Huntsman told the hundreds of graduates on Saturday 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."
Less than a week after resigning his diplomatic post and returning to the United States to consider his own presidential aspirations, Huntsman struck a patriotic and optimistic tone in his commencement address, one of two he's giving this month. In two weeks, Huntsman is slated to give the address at Southern New Hampshire University.
More than a dozen reporters lined press row to hear Huntsman, a much larger gaggle of scribes than Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor drew the night before for her commencement speech.
Huntsman, dressed in the university's garnet robe, didn't use the opportunity to set up any presidential buzz, although he did toss out a few lines about the country's optimistic future that, should he run, are likely to show up in campaign stump speeches.
"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," Huntsman said. "We are still as full of potential as ever."
Some in China might think America's best days are over, Huntsman said, while there are those in America who fear their country has lost its leading role on the international stage.
"But these people aren't seeing things from my earlier vantage point of 10,000 miles away," Huntsman said. "The way I saw it from overseas, America's passion remains as strong today as ever."
Seeking to reach young graduates, Huntsman sprinkled his speech with a few "cool" and "awesome" references, read lyrics from rockers Ben Folds Five and acknowledged to the crowd that he dropped out of high school to join a tribute band called Wizard.
"Wizard didn't make it, but I'll never regret following my passion," Huntsman said, suggesting graduates stop asking others what they should do with their lives and follow their own paths.
"Be you, remember others, embrace failure, find someone to love, give back, [and] never forget to rock 'n roll," Huntsman said, summing up his speech.
The speech appeared well-received at graduation ceremonies, but mentions of him at the state Republican convention a block away were almost nonexistent. Several candidates exploring a presidential bid spoke to the crowd, a group that's proud of its spot as an early gauge of presidential contenders.
Huntsman didn't set foot in the GOP dinner or convention, and that omission showed when Republicans there cast their ballots for their favorite presidential candidates.
Out of 408 cast, Huntsman collected a mere four votes.