Recovering in hospital after he was stabbed at a campaign event a week ago, Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro posed for a photograph, grinning and brandishing an imaginary rifle.
It was a gesture he has often made while repeating a campaign promise to loosen up gun control, but many Brazilians were horrified by the implied threat.
Supporters who gathered on Rio’s Copacabana beach on Sunday seemed unbothered by the row, however: Bolsonaro’s promise of an iron fist against Brazil’s epidemic of violent crime have helped push him to into poll position.
And many of his supporters believe that the stabbing will bring even more voters around to his cause.
“It was a political attack,” said Raul Pereira, 35, an architect. “It will increase support.”
Police have recommended charges under a national security law against his alleged attacker, Adélio Bispo de Oliveira, who has claimed he was acting under orders from God and “felt threatened” by Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro’s opponents were quick to condem the stabbing – which left the candidate in intensive care – but many Brazilians remain revolted by his explicitly racist, sexist and homophobic comments. This week more than a million people joined a Facebook group called Women United Against Bolsonaro.
The former army captain once said that to have a gay son or daughter was “equal to death”; he told a female lawmaker who called him a rapist that he would not rape her because she did not “deserve to be raped”, and has argued that Brazil’s brutal, 21-year military dictatorship should have killed more dissidents.
But supporters at the Rio rally either agreed with his comments, shrugged them off as “marketing” – or said he should go further.
“You could cut the arms off those who steal, beat then, put them in a ‘pau de arrara’,” said Andreza Silva, 26, a beautician at the demonstration, referring to a dictatorship-era torture in which prisoners were hung from a pole.
Bolsonaro has not gone that far, but he has praised dictatorship-era torturers, proposed that police should been given immunity to kill criminals and called for chemical castration of rapists.
And such suggestions do resonate with voters desperate for an end to Brazil’s spiraling murder rate.
After an evening service at the Assembly of God Victory in Christ evangelical church in Rio’s working class Penha neighbourhood, many churchgoers expressed support for Bolsonaro’s focus on law and order.
“Public security should be put first. It is an embarrassment,” said Sandra Conçeião dos Santos, 44, an unemployed kitchen assistant.
Anderson Valentim, 41, a Rio police sergeant, said members of the city’s dispirited and under-funded police force – as well as firefighters and the military – will overwhelmingly vote for Bolsonaro. “We have to have support to work,” he said. “People want a change, an alternative in power.”
Valentim was unconcerned by Bolsonaro’s praise for the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil from 1964-85, repeating a common argument that the regime saved the country from the threat posed armed leftists – although historians agree that Brazil’s guerrilla groups never came close to taking power.
“At that time it was war,” said Valentim. “The guerrillas committed excesses as well.”
On Tuesday, Brazil’s supreme court voted to drop charges of inciting racism against Bolsonaro, although a separate accusation of inciting rape has yet to come to court.
But unlike roughly half of the Congress who face investigations for serious crimes, Bolsonaro has never been charged with corruption.
And despite 28 years as a deputy in Brazil’s lower house, he presents himself as a political outsider, raging against the leftwing Workers’ Party for its involvement in a string of graft scandals – and vowing to drain Brasília’s swamp.
Evangelical Christian women at the church approved of Bolsonaro’s attacks on the so-called ‘gay kit’ – a package of educational material tackling homophobia that the government of Dilma Rousseff tried to introduce in 2011.
“I won’t say he is perfect, but he is most aligned with family values,” said Renata Santana, 44, an educational psychologist.
Other supporters are attracted by his promise of simple solutions to Brazil’s worst-ever recession.
“There are no jobs, and this is because of socialist policies that stopped business people taking projects forward,” said Rose Limeira, 32, a private school teacher in São Paulo. “People can’t afford to employ anyone because cause they pay so much to the government.”
His manifesto promises to transform a $33bn deficit into a surplus by 2020 while cutting taxes, a pledge which has been rubbished by economists – not least because next year’s budget has already been approved in Congress.
Bolsonaro admits that he understands little about economics and says he will defer to the pro-market policies of his advisor Paulo Guedes, prompting some powerful businessmen to announce support.
Like voters for Donald Trump, who Bolsonaro admires, supporters like Limeira ignore negative coverage on mainstream media, preferring channels like Terça Livre, a rightwing site and YouTube channel with 390,000 followers.
“There is a lot of news about him that is untrue,” said Jalmirez Costa Júnior, 32, a commercial representative in Brasília.
An IBOPE poll this week gave Bolsonaro 26%, putting him in the lead for the first vote on 7 October and roughly even with his main competitors for a run-off vote on 28 October.
Some supporters decline to discuss him, suggesting that could mean his support is higher than polls indicate.
Others previously voted for the Workers’ Party, but turned on them after a string of graft scandals.
Francisco Andrade, 34, an unemployed truck driver from Nova Iguaçu, a hardscrabble town near Rio, was won over by a list of Bolsonaro’s crime-busting proposals circulating on WhatsApp.
After being held up eight times in recent years, Andrade said he supported tougher penalties for criminals. “I want a change,” he sighed.