Overall, 53% of likely voters say they think the Democratic nominee will do a better job in the debates, while 43% expect her GOP rival to walk away the winner.
Clinton faces a smaller expectations gap than President Barack Obama did heading into his debates in 2008 and 2012. About 6 in 10 said they thought Obama would be the better debater over both John McCain and Mitt Romney.
And although Trump is on the losing side in this question, he fares better than almost every Republican in the last 24 years. The lone exception: George W. Bush during his re-election campaign in 2004, when 52% thought he would outperform John Kerry before their first debate.
Expectations for Clinton are highest among her own supporters, 91% of whom expect her to do a better job than Trump. Among Trump's backers, 78% think he will emerge as the better debater and 18% expect Clinton to fare better. Among registered voters who say they could change their minds between now and Election Day, 60% think Clinton will get the better of Trump at the debates and 38% expect the businessman to top the former secretary of state.
Overall, two-thirds of voters say they are more interested in watching this year's debates than previous ones; just a quarter say they are less interested. Trump's supporters are especially enthusiastic: 75% say they're more interested in this year's face-offs than in previous years, compared with 58% of Clinton's supporters.
Voters see Clinton as better able to handle the public scrutiny that comes with being president, with 52% of registered voters saying she'd be better on that point as opposed to the 43% who think Trump would.
And they say her ability to withstand scrutiny has been more needed than Trump's: 53% say he and his campaign have unfairly attacked Clinton, while just 43% think Clinton's attacks on Trump have been unfair.
There's a particularly large gender gap in perceptions of attacks, with 60% of women saying Trump has unfairly attacked Clinton, compared with just 44% of men, while there's a smaller gap in the share of men (49%) and women (38%) who think Trump has been unfairly maligned by Clinton.
The poll tested public reaction to several recent critiques raised by the candidates against their opponents, which were highlighted in a presidential forum hosted by NBC last night and on the campaign trail Thursday.
Clinton has pointed to Trump's performance at Wednesday night's forum, which focused on military issues, as evidence that a Trump presidency would put the country at risk. The public is split on that issue, with 51% saying his approach would unnecessarily put the country at risk while 48% say his approach would instead be a necessary shake-up in Washington. Political independents tilt toward seeing Trump's tactics as a necessary shake-up, 52% to the 47% who see his style as unnecessarily risky.
And perceptions of Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state, which came up frequently in Wednesday night's forum, has shifted over the last year and a half from an issue that voters deemed mostly irrelevant to her character or ability to serve as president to one which almost two-thirds judge as an indicator of her fitness for the job.
Just over 6 in 10, 62%, say the way Clinton handled her email while serving as secretary of state is an important indicator of her character and ability to serve as president, just 36% say it has no bearing on her character or abilities. In March 2015, when news of the server first broke, 52% said it was not indicative of her character.
Most voters see Clinton's family foundation, which has come under sharp criticism from Trump over how donors to the foundation interacted with Clinton while she was secretary of state, as an organization that should be shuttered if Clinton is elected to avoid possible conflict of interest, with a sizable share saying it should be closed down now. Overall, 38% say it should be shut down now to do so, another 22% say it should be shut down if Clinton wins the presidency, and 34% say it does too much good to be shut down completely.
Clinton also is seen as more apt to change her positions for political reasons -- 51% say she's more apt to flip-flop, 42% say Trump is, and another 6% say both of them are equally likely to do that.
The CNN/ORC poll was conducted by telephone September 1-4 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The survey includes results among 886 registered voters and 786 likely voters. For results among registered or likely voters, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.