Jon Huntsman Positions Himself As 2012′s ‘Cool’ Candidate, Defends Obama Administration Role

May 7, 2011 11:44am

ABC News' Amy Walter (@amyewalter) reports:

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In a graduation speech Saturday morning at the University of South Carolina, former U.S. Ambassador to China and potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman tried his best to look like a cool, young dad instead of a traditional politician.

He kicked off his remarks to the 1,150 graduates by thanking the university's president, Dr. Harris Pastides, for an introduction that "made me sound pretty cool."

Huntsman then went on to recount his time as a young man playing in the rock band "Wizard" noting that he once had Rod Stewart-like hair and "I wouldn't wear anything but super skinny jeans."

He ended his remarks with a reference to Ben Folds, a musician who was popular when most of the graduates were in diapers. He ended his speech by telling the soon to be grads "never forget to rock and roll."

But the former ambassador and Utah governor also addressed more weighty matters, including the issue that both Republicans and Democrats appear intent on using against him if he launches a White House bid — his service in the administration of a president he may now be seeking to run against.

"Work to keep America great. Serve her if asked. I was, by a president of a different political party," Huntsman said. "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, energy and confidence."

It was a coming out party of sorts for the former ambassador. Just a week since returning stateside from his posting in China, Huntsman made his public debut to South Carolina voters, about a dozen national political reporters and even to his own aides, many of whom have been working on his non-campaign in his absence for a few months now.

That he chose South Carolina and a graduation ceremony is notable. South Carolina, of course, is one of the four early primary states, and a graduation ceremony, instead of a traditional political event,  allowed him to define himself as a person and not just a politician. He offered up some biographical highlights, noting that he met his wife in high school where both held part time jobs at a Marie Callender's restaurant.

Even so, the South Carolina primary doesn't seem like a natural fit for Huntsman, whose moderate record on issues like cap-and trade-and civil unions for gay couples are not likely to sit well with the evangelical conservative electorate here.

The debate over America's relationship with China is also going to be something Huntsman is going to have navigate. China was often used as a boogeyman during the 2010 election cycle and potential candidates like Donald Trump have made China's "currency manipulation" a major talking point in speeches to GOP-oriented groups.

"There are many in China who think their time has come, that America's best days are over. And, there are probably some in this country who have lost confidence and think that China is the next big thing," Huntsman said, previewing how he plans to handle the issue. "But these people aren't seeing things from my earlier vantage point of 10,000 miles away. The way I saw it from overseas, America's passion remains as strong today as ever."

Huntsman has wasted no time jump-starting the preparations for a potential presidential bid. In fact, several key supporters, including veterans of Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential operation, had already formed a kind of campaign-in-waiting by the time Huntsman touched down in the U.S. last week.

On Tuesday Huntsman set up a federal political action committee, "H PAC." A spokesman for the PAC, Tim Miller, said it was “an organizational step that will allow him to travel the country, discuss issues that are important to him, and support Republican candidates.”

Over the course of the past week Huntsman has been in Washington, DC and in New York City meeting with advisers, potential donors, elected officials and Republican party leaders.

Later this month, he will travel to New Hampshire to deliver another commencement speech, that one at Southern New Hampshire University. And in June, Huntsman plans to take part in a Republican Leadership Conference event in New Orleans, a gathering that is shaping up to be a major GOP cattle call that will include several other potential presidential candidates.

"Things are moving pretty quickly," he told reporters in South Carolina on Friday after a meeting with the state's new Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. "Whatever timeline one is looking at can't be more than a couple months."

Despite the fact that a pack of DC-based reporters were hungry for a chance to speak to him, Huntsman was ferried out of the building immediately following Saturday morning's ceremony. Instead of stopping by the South Carolina GOP convention which is going on down the street, Huntsman was headed about 100 miles south to Charleston for what his aides said were "private meetings."

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