By John Whitesides
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican Jon Huntsman, a potential White House contender and former ambassador to China, used his first public speech since returning from Beijing to answer conservative critics who question his service under President Barack Obama.
In a commencement address at the University of South Carolina, the former two-term governor of Utah told graduates they should serve their country if asked.
"I was, by a president of a different political party," he 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 of energy and confidence."
Huntsman's work for Obama, the man he would be trying to unseat, has been considered one of his biggest vulnerabilities if he runs in the 2012 White House race.
While this speech will not end questions about Huntsman's service, his eagerness to address the issue was another sign of his likely candidacy after a busy week that saw him form a political action committee and meet with potential donors and supporters.
The speech came during a weekend visit to South Carolina, which holds a crucial early primary in the Republican nominating battle. Huntsman also plans a commencement address later this month in the early voting state of New Hampshire.
While he is little known nationally, Huntsman offers an intriguing fresh face to Republicans unhappy with their choices in an unsettled nominating race. But in addition to his work for Obama, his moderate stances on civil unions and climate change could be a stumbling block for conservatives.
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty told reporters on Friday there was room for Huntsman in a Republican presidential field that still has plenty of room to grow.
"He's smart, he's informed, he's seasoned, he has a lot of insight," Pawlenty said.
Huntsman told reporters after he met with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley on Friday that he and his family were considering their options and expected to make a decision on a campaign within "a couple months."
"I wouldn't want to suggest that there is a timeline other than to say that things are moving pretty quickly," he said.
In his commencement address, Huntsman told the graduates his work in Beijing had given him a fresh perspective on the United States and on the growing power of China.
"I know 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," he said.
"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."
He said the United States remained an inspiration and source of envy to the world.
"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. We are still as full of potential as ever," he said.
"When the oppressed are fighting autocratic regimes, they look to America for inspiration."
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)