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In Florida, Gingrich harnesses anger of the right

By Sam Youngman

CORAL SPRINGS, Florida (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was laughing.

Not a politician's polite chuckle but a real laugh as a protester who had infiltrated the crowd at one of his rallies on Wednesday was escorted out.

"Nah, nah, nah, nah ... hey, hey-ey, goodbye," the crowd sang as the woman was led away. One man stood near the woman and yelled, "You're an idiot!"

"You guys are cruel," Gingrich, still laughing, told the hundreds gathered to see him speak in advance of Florida's Republican presidential primary on Tuesday. "And you're loving every minute of it."

At Gingrich's big rallies in Florida this week, even the moments of levity seem to have an edge.

Gingrich, seeking to follow up on his surprising win over rival Mitt Romney in South Carolina last week, is tapping into the anger of conservative voters as he tries to maintain momentum in the race to determine who will face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 elections.

It's unclear how long Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, can ride the wave as The Angry Guy in the presidential race.

Many Republican activists see Gingrich as someone who can stir up crowds but question whether he can translate that into presidential leadership.

For the large crowds attending Gingrich's rallies, the anger toward Obama - and fears of him being re-elected - can be seen and heard everywhere. It's in Gingrich's fiery speeches and in the themes of many of the rallies: Islam, the Devil, Obama. Many identify themselves as being members of the Tea Party movement, which advocates limited government and taxes.

Among the Republican presidential candidates, Ron Paul has long been thought to be the favorite of that conservative movement. But two days with Gingrich in Florida suggest that he has taken over that spot, at least in the Sunshine State.

A RELIGIOUS CONNECTION

There is a religious element to many of Gingrich's events.

At The River, a megachurch in St. Petersburg, Pastor Rodney Browne warmed up the crowd with an evangelical prayer in which he warned that "the only hope for America is a spiritual awakening."

"I pray there will be a rising of every believer in this land that will not sit idly by and allow the killing of unborn babies and allow Islam to take over this country and allow the rights and freedom of a Christian nation where the word of God is proclaimed and preached to be taken away," Browne said.

Members of the crowd swayed as Browne spoke and minutes later they cheered Gingrich, cast as the candidate who could stop those things from happening.

In Coral Springs, David Van Ness, a Gingrich supporter, put it bluntly: "I see our country being destroyed and I see Newt as a savior."

If Gingrich is a savior, then his crowds believe the "liberal media" are the Romans. The former speaker has united his followers behind his belief that the media is out to get him and protect Obama.

Gingrich "knows what we need as far as taking on the media and taking on Obama," said Karen Hoffman, a Tea Party activist in Coral Springs.

Some members of Gingrich's crowds say they moved away from supporting Paul because the Texas congressman is too passive on national defense matters.

Gingrich is happy to have their support, especially as polls show him in a battle with Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.

"The Tea Party movement has begun to make a big difference," Gingrich said Wednesday. "And I believe that in the election this fall, it will make a decisive difference in the future of the country."

(Editing by David Lindsey and Bill Trott)

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