By Lucila Sigal and Miguel Lo Bianco
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Hundreds of thousands of Argentines descended on the capital's main plaza on Friday in a show of solidarity against a shocking assassination attempt on the country's vice president a day earlier, which triggered an outpouring of support in a country gripped by deep political polarization and economic crisis.
An assailant pointed a loaded pistol from close range at Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner outside her Buenos Aires home where crowds had gathered Thursday night, but the gun failed to discharge.
Authorities have yet to ascertain a motive for the attack on Fernandez de Kirchner, a leftist former president of the South American country.
Buenos Aires' historic Plaza de Mayo, next to the Casa Rosada presidential offices, overflowed on Friday with a crowd of her flag-waving supporters along with allied unions and other activists.
"Thank God and the Virgin that the bullet didn't come out," said 58-year-old teacher Santiago Bianco.
Others in the packed plaza also echoed a sense of nervous relief that a much worse tragedy was avoided.
"For us, the possibility that something like that could happen to Cristina is unthinkable," said Claudia, 37, who declined to provide her surname. "We were saved last night from something terrible that we can't even comprehend."
Political leaders around the region, U.S. officials and Argentine Pope Francis all condemned the attack, which took place against a backdrop of a severe economic slump driven by sky-high inflation and the disintegrating value of the peso currency.
Fernandez de Kirchner, a divisive figure who is arguably Argentina's most powerful political operator, is facing potential corruption charges linked to an alleged scheme to divert public funds while president between 2007 and 2015. A prosecutor in recent weeks called for a 12-year prison sentence.
She denies wrongdoing and her supporters have rallied in the streets and gathered daily outside her residence, criticizing the judiciary and conservative opposition for leading what they say is a witch hunt against her.
'RHETORIC OF HATE'
President Alberto Fernandez's office has called for an end to a "rhetoric of hate," and the president said the attack was the worst since the country returned to democracy decades ago.
The attack was streamed into households across the country via video and photos that went viral beginning late Thursday night, graphically showing the gun being pushed towards Fernandez de Kirchner's head, before she crouched down and covered her face with her hands. Supporters outside her house then bundled a man away.
Oscar Parrilli, a senator with the ruling coalition close to the vice president, told local radio she was in shock but okay. "Luckily, she has her spirit intact," he said.
Police arrested a suspect who they named as Fernando Andres Sabag Montiel, a 35-year-old Brazilian.
Local newspaper La Nacion, citing police sources, said that Montiel had been working as a driver and renting rooms in the capital's Villa Zagala neighborhood. Police found 100 bullets when they raided the property, the newspaper said.
Video footage seen by Reuters showed police raiding the property.
Oscar Delupi, 64, a railway worker, blamed political divisions for triggering the violence.
"It's crazy, society has already lost its temper a little, the message of hate... is becoming more and more fierce in those weak-minded people who opt for a crazy thing like an attack," he said.
(Reporting by Lucila Sigal and Miguel Lo Bianco; Editing by Nicolas Misculin, Adam Jourdan, John Stonestreet, Rosalba O'Brien and Lisa Shumaker)