Washington (CNN) - Americans are split on President Obama's goal of eliminating all of the world's nuclear weapons, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Monday. But the survey also indicates the public overwhelmingly agrees with the mission of the president's nuclear summit this week to keep those weapons out of the hands of terrorists.
Seventy-seven percent of people questioned in the poll say that preventing terrorists from getting nuclear weapons is more important than reducing the number of nuclear weapons controlled by government that are unfriendly to the U.S. According to the survey, 55 percent say that it is likely that terrorists will attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons within the next decade, but less than four in ten think that an all-out nuclear is likely.
"Most Americans are worried about terrorists with nuclear weapons and they see 'loose nukes' as the top priority for the government's nuclear policy," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
The survey comes as President Barack Obama met individually with some visiting foreign leaders before the start of a two-day summit of 47 nations that will focus on how to better safeguard nuclear weapons materials, both old and new, and keep them out of the hands of terrorists.
The poll indicates Americans are divided on Obama's long-term goals, with half saying eliminating all nuclear arms is most desirable, and 49 percent saying that a few major countries, including the U.S., should have enough nuclear weapons to prevent an attack from another nation. According to the survey, there's a generational divide and a gender gap on this question.
"Fifty-eight percent of women favor the elimination of all nuclear weapons, but most men don't share that view," says Holland. "People under 50 also call for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, but people over 50 - who are more likely to remember the Cold War - think that the U.S. and a few other countries should retain their nuclear arms."
In 1988, the same question produced a 56 percent to 41 percent margin in favor of eliminating all nuclear weapons. According to that poll, only a quarter of Americans think it is possible to get rid of nuclear weapons worldwide. That is also a change from the late 1980s, when more than a third of all Americans said that it was possible to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
The poll indicates that the vast majority of Americans say the Senate should ratify a nuclear arms treaty that the president recently signed with Russia. Seven in ten say the pact, which would reduce both countries' nuclear stockpiles, should be approved by senators. But the survey suggests a partisan divide on the question. The Constitution requires a two-thirds Senate majority to ratify treaties.
"Eighty-seven percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Independents call for Senate ratification of the treaty," says Holland. "But Republicans are split right down the middle - 49 percent to 49 percent - on the treaty, and that may be crucial since ratification will require a 'yes' vote from at least eight GOP Senators."
The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was conducted April 9-11, with 1,008 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three points.
–CNN Deputy Political Director Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report