WASHINGTON — Just over half of Americans say torture is justified in some cases to thwart terrorist attacks, and the country is evenly divided over whether to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, according to a poll that underscores President Barack Obama's challenges in selling his terror-fighting policies.
Even so, the latest Associated Press-GfK survey also shows that Obama enjoys broad confidence that he can effectively handle terrorism in an era when many people say they still fear becoming a victim and when a swath of the public shares the views of Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
At the same time, Obama hasn't lost support _ he has a strong 64 percent job-approval rating _ and nearly half of Americans still think the country's headed in the right direction. That's despite bipartisan rebukes of the new president's ordered closure of the detention center in Cuba and former Vice President Dick Cheney's sustained criticism of Obama's approach to terrorism.
The issues emerged in the poll as intensely partisan, with viewpoints largely split along ideological lines.
"To uphold the integrity of our Constitution for ourselves and for the world, it is important" that the U.S. close the Guantanamo prison, said Diana Jones, 68, a Democrat from Timonium, Md., who has faith in Obama's terror-fighting abilities. Countered Steve Marsh, 50, a Republican from Guntersville, Ala., who doesn't think Obama is strong enough on terrorism: "I'd just rather see them there than see them here on our soil."
Such issues have dominated Obama's agenda in recent weeks as he has wrestled with the fallout of Bush-era policies and the legal questions surrounding them, while trying to fend off criticism from friends and foes alike.
Obama ordered the Bush-created prison closed by early 2010 and emphatically stated "we don't torture" just days after taking office.
Since then, the Democratic-controlled Senate demanded more details of Obama's plan as lawmakers voted 90-6 to refuse to give him $80 million he requested to shutter the prison, which has held hundreds of detainees for years without charges or trials. Republicans also spoke vigorously against the notion that dangerous terrorism suspects could end up confined on U.S. soil. And foreign allies balked at accepting the transfer of prisoners from the Navy-run facility when the United States didn't appear willing to do the same.
All that prompted Obama to deliver a speech in which he insisted that U.S. maximum-security prisons can safely house the prisoners and argued anew that closing Guantanamo could make the U.S. safer because the facility would no longer motivate enemies overseas. In his second term, Bush said he would like to close Guantanamo.
Obama risks further defeat of his policies in Congress and disapproval of them abroad if he can't get the public on board. Thus, he's making a tough sell.
The AP-GfK poll shows most Americans have faith in him, with 70 percent saying they are confident of Obama's ability to address terrorism. Nearly all Democrats, two-thirds of independents and just over a third of Republicans express confidence.
Nearly eight years after terrorists struck on U.S. soil, more than a third of Americans say they worry about the chance that they or their relatives might fall victim to a terrorist attack _ essentially unchanged from 35 percent five years ago.
The poll also shows potential areas of political vulnerability for Obama, indicating he must walk a fine line as he seeks to both protect the country and turn the page on Bush's national security policies.
Some 52 percent of people say torture can be at least sometimes justified to obtain information about terrorist activities from suspects, an increase from 38 percent in 2005 when the AP last asked the question. More than two-thirds of Republicans say torture can be justified compared with just over a third of Democrats.
"Sometimes you got to do what you got to do," said Jean Kraft, 69, a Democrat from Pompano Beach, Fla. Still, she added: "I truly don't think we should" torture.
Others were more pointed.
"I don't agree with torture, period," said Karl Holt, 65, a Democrat from Amherst, N.Y.
On Obama's plan to close Guantanamo, 47 percent approve, while 47 percent disapprove. Most Republicans disapprove, while most Democrats approve. Independents are evenly divided.
Leann Wills, 35, a Republican from Muleshoe, Texas, is among those who oppose closure, saying: "You know the old saying, if it's not broke, don't fix it. So why should we close if it's been working for us all of these years?"
But Michelle Knutson, 40, a Democrat from Hillsboro, Ore., argues that the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo undercuts U.S. ideals, saying: "This is not a police state, it's democracy."
Despite the president's safety assurances, more than half of Americans say they would be worried about the chance of terrorism suspects escaping from U.S. high-security prisons. Yet again, more Republicans express concern than Democrats. Still, the figures indicate that the GOP-fueled fear may be resonating.
Leading the charge by Republicans against Obama's policies is Cheney. The poll shows nearly a quarter had a favorable opinion of the former vice president, a measure that's risen steadily from a low of 13 percent in one 2007 poll.
The poll also found one bright spot for the out-of-power GOP: More people identified themselves as Republican than did last month, 23 percent to 18 percent.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted May 28 to June 1 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Associated Press writers Christine Simmons and Natasha Metzler, AP Polling Director Trevor Tompson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
The questions and results for this poll are available at http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com