Republican Jon Huntsman, weighing a White House bid, used his first formal event after stepping down as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China to confront the line on his resume that conservatives were most likely to declare a deal-breaker.
In a high-profile speech to the University of South Carolina, the former Utah governor said patriotism should trump partisanship and defended his two years in Beijing as the Democratic administration's top diplomat.
"Work to keep America great. Serve her if asked. I was — by a president of a different political party," Huntsman said, directly addressing the job that his rivals and critics hope to make disqualifier among the conservatives who hold great sway in the nominating process.
"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," he told graduates, pitching himself as an above-politics figure and appealing to voters who have grown weary of political bickering.
Obama named Huntsman, a Mandarin speaker and former Mormon missionary to Taiwan, his representative in Beijing two years ago. Many believed Obama was sending a rising star in Republican politics — and a potential challenger in 2012 — to China to neutralize the threat.
If that was the goal, it didn't work.
Huntsman no sooner stepped off the plane from Beijing last week than he was meeting with advisers in Washington, courting donors in New York and wooing lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He also swiftly set up a federal political committee and hired staff, all clear signs he's moving rapidly toward a White House run.
And on Friday, he met privately with Gov. Nikki Haley, another rising star in the GOP who last year became the first woman and first Indian-American to win the governor's office in South Carolina.
"Things are moving pretty quickly," he said. He signaled that he'd decide sooner rather than later whether to run, adding: "Whatever timeline one is looking at can't be more than a couple months."
Huntsman, who worked in the Republican administrations of President Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said he and his family are "seriously considering our options and taking a good serious look at maintaining some level of activity in public service."
In a field of possible Republican contenders that remains fragmented and lacks a clear frontrunner, Huntsman is struggling like others in his party to build name recognition and enthusiasm. But for what he lacks in celebrity, he brings executive experience as a former CEO and diplomat and a Mormon and Wall Street fundraising base that could help him quickly introduce himself to voters.
Huntsman's advisers say he hasn't made a decision if he will join the field for 2012. At age 51, he could afford to wait until 2016 if he perceives Obama as likely to be unbeatable.
Still, Huntsman's upcoming schedule reads like one of a full-fledged candidate: He spent three days here meeting with potential advisers and supporters. He's slated to deliver a commencement address on May 21 at Southern New Hampshire University — another early nominating state that is expected to figure prominently in a Huntsman strategy. And he plans to join other GOP hopefuls at the Republican Leadership Conference meeting in New Orleans in June, a regular stop for those looking at White House runs.
Saturday's speech was serving Huntsman as a reintroduction of sorts after two years overseas and the unofficial start of what advisers anticipate will be a full-fledged campaign even though they say he's not likely to formally enter the race for another month. He did not stake out domestic political positions in the speech but rather offered graduates advice and inspiration — even if it closely mirrored rhetoric Huntsman's advisers often use to describe the would-be candidate.
"Our system needs new thinking," Huntsman said. "We need a fresh generation of innovators, leaders, risk takers, entrepreneurs, scientists and activists. That's you. And you're not just taking ownership of your own pathway, but all of our futures."
Huntsman, a conservative who has taken moderate positions on environmental issues and came out in support of same-sex civil unions, is among several Republicans still weighing bids as the GOP field takes shape at a much slower pace than in past campaigns. Huntsman's advisers say parts of his record could appeal to conservatives, moderates and independents alike.
More than a dozen people have expressed interest in running, though former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are the only three serious contenders to have taken the first official steps by forming exploratory committees. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was preparing to join the contest in the coming days.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is likely to announce a decision about running over the next few weeks after months of being prodded to run by fiscal conservatives hungering for more options in the field. And there are a slew of others leaving the door open: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses that year; and reality TV star Donald Trump.
A Huntsman campaign began to take shape well before he left China.
Led by strategist John Weaver, a group of presidential veterans put together a political team so that Huntsman could be ready to run if he returned home and was receptive to a presidential bid. Pollster Whit Ayres is the latest to join the team and if Huntsman runs would help him shape ads and messages against opponents.
For now, Huntsman's advisers are assembling in Washington, where Huntsman recently bought a $3 million mansion that housed contestants on Bravo's "Top Chef." No decision has been made on a location for a campaign headquarters.
Associated Press writer Jim Davenport contributed to this report.