Count former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman among those trumpeting American exceptionalism, even in a time of achingly slow economic recovery.
(PICTURES: Political Commencement Speakers)
In his first address since quitting his job as ambassador to China, Huntsman on Saturday told graduates at the University of South Carolina they will be the next generation to make the country stand apart, while subtly beginning to make the case that he should be the the leader to take them there.
"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. The way I saw it from overseas, America’s passions remain as strong today as ever," Huntsman told graduates. "So hold on to that sense of optimism. Hold on to that belief in your future."
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Huntsman stands apart in a field of more traditional politicians. As Republicans hold their breath, hoping a staid Midwestern governor with years of experience in Washington (Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels) or a lively southern populist minister (Mike Huckabee) jump into the race, Huntsman told graduates his path began when he dropped out of high school, with "Rod Stewart shaggy" hair and "super skinny jeans," to play in a rock band called Wizard.
(RELATED: Text of Huntsman's Speech)
"Well Wizard didn’t make it, but I’ll never regret following my passion," Huntsman said. "Sometimes we take America for granted. Sometimes we forget we have the freedom to pursue any passion, while many in this world do not."
During his time in China, Huntsman said he was reminded that other nations still look to the U.S. for inspiration, whether inspired by democracy, industrial acumen or educational opportunities. Huntsman advisors want to play up that which sets him apart from the field, an effort, they say privately, to convey it will take something different to beat an entrenched incumbent like President Obama.
For evidence, look no farther than the venue Huntsman chose for his first speech since leaving government service, his opportunity to introduce himself to Republican primary voters. Huntsman chose a key early nominating state, but he did not address business executives or party activists. His commencement address was devoid of direct contrast and light on politics; he mentioned musicians Stewart and Ben Folds more (twice, total) than he referenced President Obama (only once, and in a context of his own sense of service to the nation).
And few politicians would be heard giving this advice to graduating students: "Be you. Remember others. Embrace failure. Find someone to love. Give back. Never forget to rock and roll."
Though he hopes to convey a sense that he appeals beyond traditional demographic groups, Huntsman will face a more traditional Republican electorate—one that is likely to question his past positions on climate change, immigration and even gay rights. Huntsman's argument rests heavily on his electability once, if, he makes it to a general election.
"Our system needs new thinking. We need a fresh generation of innovators, leaders, risk takers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and activists. That’s you," Huntsman told graduates on Saturday. He's hoping voters in South Carolina, a state with a long history of correctly predicting the eventual winner of the Republican presidential nomination, see him in the same light.
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