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At 9/11 memorial in Florida, Huntsman takes care not to 'politicize' event

Republican Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman speaks during a luncheon with the Republican Jewish Coalition at the Marriott Hotel on September 9, 2011 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla.--Jon Huntsman, the only Republican presidential candidate to publicly participate in a memorial service for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, said after the ceremony in Tampa on Sunday that he had to take precautions to avoid "politicizing" the event.

Following the service Huntsman attended with his wife, Mary Kaye, outside the Tampa Firefighters Museum, the former Utah governor - known for his love of motorcycles - told CBS News/National Journal that he was originally slated to ride in the processional with motorcyclists from the Freedom Riders and Rolling Thunder organizations. But, he said, "I think there was some sensitivity about not wanting to politicize an event like this, and I respect that.

"Believe me, I'm always where I can be on a motorcycle," Huntsman continued, "but I also respect and honor those who don't want to politicize events like this. I think that's important."

It's not the first time politicians have faced potential controversy for participating in memorial events with motorcycling organizations. In May, Sarah Palin, one of Huntsman's potential rivals in the presidential ring, was accused of playing politics with a Rolling Thunder rally in Arlington, Va., which she used to kick off her "One Nation" bus tour.

Pivoting from that model, Huntsman instead watched the ceremony on Sunday from a reserved front-row seat. Though he didn't take the podium, he was introduced as a "special guest" by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who told Huntsman that his presence at the event "means a lot to us."

Other candidates chose not to take the risk of a public appearance. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., opted to send out statements mourning the losses of 9/11 but celebrating the unity that ensued following the crisis.

Reflecting on the moment he first heard about the terrorist attacks a decade ago, Huntsman recalled he had "just landed in Vietnam as a U.S. trade ambassador. And [I was] trying to make sense of it 10,000 miles away, where I was stuck for about four days unable to return to my family.

"Everyone remembers, everyone has a moment that they recall; everyone knows where they were and what they were doing," Huntsman continued. "And this country is better and stronger because we've pulled together. We have to remember that theme of unity as well. Because when this nation pulls together, as it did 10 years ago in the aftermath of 9/11, no one can stop us."

While wary of carrying politics into the service, Huntsman also answered questions solely relating to his candidacy, including his Florida campaign strategy, which has recently undergone a serious makeover. Florida, Huntsman said, "is vitally important. In fact I do believe this is where the Republican nominee will be chosen."

Huntsman is in Tampa to participate in Monday's Republican candidates' debate. On Saturday, he took a day off from his campaign duties to celebrate Mary Kaye's 50th birthday in Orlando, her hometown.