WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) _ Their postures said a lot about what Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore were trying to prove.

Bush, the Texas governor still battling questions about his presidential stature, began Wednesday night's debate sitting ramrod straight in his chair. Two arms' lengths across the table, Gore leaned casually onto his elbows and tried to bury a reputation for self-aggrandizement by making the joke on him.

``Let's move on,'' moderator Jim Lehrer suggested after one lengthy exchange.

``Far be it from me to suggest otherwise,'' the vice president quipped with a flourish of modesty that won a laugh from his opponent.

Bush aimed straight at his own Achilles heel with an exaggerated Texas twang: ``I've been known to mangle a syll-ABB-le or two.''

The second of three presidential debates showcased stylistic lessons learned from the first.

At Salt Lake City's Shilo Inn, traveler Martin Limus noticed the difference.

``There's no head bopping or that kind of stuff. They're being more professional this time. They acted like kids last time,'' Limus said.

Gore, lampooned on NBC-TV's ``Saturday Night Live'' program last week as a smarty-pants hogging the microphone, replaced his exasperated sighs with an occasional ``mmm-hmm'' of assent and trod gingerly through any assertion that might be called embellishment.

The United States is more mighty now than at any time in history _ ``that I know about, anyway,'' he said.

That we're a worldwide model is not an exaggeration, Gore said at another point, ``It's really true.''

Things started out so smoothly that Bush mumbled midway something about ``a great lovefest.''

Gore seemed to labor at sounding reasonable and conversational _ not puffed-up. After restating Bush's criteria for U.S. military intervention overseas, he asked earnestly, ``Have I got that wrong?''

Lehrer noted gently that both had violated the negotiated rules of exchange. ``But I've tried so hard not to!'' Gore exclaimed.

The most noticeable sound effect came this time from Bush, who opened and closed several answers with a breathy ``heh-heh.'' He appeared uneasy _ tripping over the word ``peace'' so that it came out ``peash'' _ as the first 40 minutes focused on foreign policy.

The conversation moved on to criminal justice and Bush settled into his chair, swiveling back and forth a bit. That was when ``the smirk'' made its first appearance since advisers trained it out of him during the primary debates. In those winter preliminaries, Bush was also criticized for chuckling through a discussion of the death penalty.

Under fire from Gore for opposing a national hate crimes law, Bush referred to the men convicted of dragging James Byrd, a black Texas man, to his death behind a pickup truck.

``Guess what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death,'' Bush bragged. ``It's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they're put to death.''

At that, he leaned back in his chair, the left side of his mouth curling upward.