WITH ALL THE TALK about "character" in presidential politics, you might think the news media would be paying especially close attention to Republican presidential hopeful Paul Laxalt. The character issue, in his case, involves questions about relationships with characters far more dubious than Donna Rice.

Yet compared to the attention showered on Gary Hart, the former senator from Nevada and long-time confidant of Ronald Reagan thus far has gotten off easy.

Ten days ago, Laxalt and the McClatchy Newspapers agreed to settle a libel suit Laxalt had lodged against one of their papers, the Sacramento Bee. The Bee's November 1983 story portrayed the former Nevada governor as having unsavory friends and accepting campaign contributions from people the Justice Department characterized as mobsters. The newspaper also said IRS investigators believed there was a skimming operation underway at the hotel/casino Laxalt once owned.

Despite occasional press probes of Laxalt -- notably by Pete Hamill in The Village Voice, Edward Pound in The Wall Street Journal, David Willman and Carl Cannon in The San Jose News -- the media have tended to glide over Laxalt's past. Cocktail chatter usually ghettoized the subject: "Oh, you mean the Sacramento Bee story!" It may have had something to do with his exalted status in Washington as a gentleman who plays tennis with the establishment and is a regular source for prominent journalists.

Laxalt is nothing if not charming, and his tax returns suggest he is dollar-honest, as well. However, his career poses some character questions that are at least as important as what Donna and Gary did aboard the Monkey Business. In Laxalt's case, at least three character issues merit scrutiny:

What was the nature of Laxalt's dealings with reputed organized-crime figures?

What was the relationship between Laxalt and alleged stock manipulator Delbert W. Coleman?

Has Laxalt, like Gary Hart, shown a moral obtuseness that should disqualify him from higher office?

Laxalt's presidential spokesman, David Carmine, attacks both the assumption that Laxalt has gotten off easy and the substance of the questions about his conduct. Laxalt, he says, is already "the most scrutinized of all the Republican presidential candidates, and the only one who's come through the legal process and been proved to be free of any connection with these people." In the pretrial discovery process, he explains, the Bee spared no expense to prove that Laxalt was connected with mobsters: "They could find nothing and were willing to state they could find nothing."

Actually, that is not what McClatchy Newspapers said. They issued a narrow statement acknowledging that during the lawsuit they didn't discover any skimming operation at Laxalt's casino, nor any evidence of Laxalt's granting anybody a right to skim, nor of Laxalt's hindering a government investigation. On the broader point about Laxalt's alleged ties to unsavory characters, the McClatchy statement was silent. The newspapers' president stated: "We have insisted the article was accurate and fair."

A review of those parts of the six volumes of Laxalt's sworn testimony so far made public does raise questions about Laxalt's associations some years ago. The evidence doesn't indicate any wrongdoing on Laxalt's part, but it does highlight the issue of whether he exercised good judgment in making friends and acquaintances.

Start with Allen Dorfman, former overseer of the powerful Teamsters pension fund and long a subject of investigation by the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force. Dorfman was convicted in 1972 for arranging kickbacks on pension-fund loans; he was later murdered, gangland-style, in 1983 while awaiting sentence for conspiring to bribe former Nevada senator Howard Cannon.

Dorfman was more than a casual acquaintance. Laxalt played golf with him in Palm Springs and flew to Chicago for Dorfman's 50th birthday party. The Teamster honcho recruited Laxalt, then a lawyer in Nevada, to write a "confidential" letter to President Nixon urging a pardon of convicted Teamster President James R. Hoffa. Laxalt's three-page Jan. 26, 1971 missive refers to Hoffa as "a political prisoner," and begins:

"Dear President Dick:

"The other day I had an extended discussion with Al Dorfman of the Teamsters, with whom I've worked closely the past few years. He described for me in detail the history of Jim Hoffa's difficulties with the Justice Department." Laxalt went on to offer a testimonial to the executive committee of the Teamsters and to say that although he did not know Hoffa personally, "I cannot believe that the man who organized this group is the criminal type so often depicted by the national press."

Over the years, Laxalt seemed more incensed with the behavior of the press and federal law-enforcement officials than with the behavior of the racketeers. Regularly during his tenure as governor of Nevada, he criticized "overly aggressive" FBI, Organized Crime Strike Force and IRS agents whose investigations were giving the state a black eye and, he said, invading peoples' privacy. To be fair, other politicians made similar criticisms of federal law-enforcement officials at the time, and in some instances they were right.

Laxalt's relationship to Delbert Coleman is a second problem. In 1969, Coleman was accused of insider trading and compelled by the SEC and the American Stock Exchange to step aside as an officer of Parvin-Dohrmann, a hotel/casino firm. In part because of his associations with people the Nevada Gaming Commission thought tied to the mob, Coleman was barred from the gambling business there.

Coleman was a financial angel to Laxalt. In 1971, he helped the former governor arrange a non-secured loan to build a hotel-casino in Carson City. Coleman introduced Laxalt to Robert Heymann of the First National Bank of Chicago. Listing Coleman as an investor (he later backed out), Laxalt at first received a loan of $950,000. Ultimately, he and his partners received $7 million, and Laxalt was required to put up just $938 as collateral.

In his pre-libel-trial depositions, Laxalt said that Coleman had helped steer legal retainers to Laxalt's law firm, paid the airfare for a trip the two men took to Switzerland, and sponsored three airplane trips that Laxalt and his wife made to New York in 1984 and 1985. Coleman's family also donated $15,/000 to Laxalt's libel-suit fund.

Which brings us to the third issue: Laxalt's attitude towards ethics. When asked in his pre-trial depositions to explain what he knew about the SEC action against Coleman, Laxalt replied: "Very little. I understand he was generally charged with dealing with insider stock, cutting his friends and family in. Based upon knowledge of some kind of transaction they profited from it. Typical insider transaction."

A moment later, this colloquy transpired with the attorney for the Sacramento Bee:

"It didn't trouble you that Mr. Coleman might be a stock manipulator?

A: Well, in the one instance I wasn't going to make that kind of judgment.

Q: Why not?

A: Because I don't make judgments based upon facts that I don't know. I don't take other peoples' words for something as serious as that.

Q: Did you look into it?

A: I had no reason to . . . . I have many friends around this country. I'm very fortunate. I suppose some of them would be classified as having problems of one sort or not, but I have long since learned not to make any judgments in connection with people, and Del Coleman is simply one of many friends that I have around the country."

At another point in his deposition, Laxalt says that when he first met Morris "Moe" Dalitz in 1966, he probably knew that there had been alllegations that Dalitz had been linked to organized crime. (Dalitz at the time was a licensed casino operator in Las Vegas, even though federal law-encorcement authorities years before had described him as an organized-crime figure.) In the deposition, this exchange transpired:

"Q: He's a friend of yours, isn't he, Mr. Dalitz?

A: If you're talking about someone who is real tight and being a friend, no, we don't have that kind of relationship, but I like the man. He's been good to me over the years. If that constitutes being a friend I guess he's a friend.

Q: You wouldn't deny it?

A: Never."

Laxalt, who couldn't be reached for comment, might well argue that these quotations from the depositions are taken out of context, deal with old information, and don't indicate any wrongdoing on his part. Maybe so. Laxalt undoubtedly has his side of the story, and he will, no doubt, explain it aggressively if the press raises questions about his character and judgment. But for the moment, the questions are hardly being asked.

Perhaps, as Laxalt's defenders have argued, it was impossible to be a politician in Nevada in the 1960s and early 1970s without knowing people like Moe Dalitz and Allen Dorfman. Certainly, voters in Nevada haven't seemed troubled by allegations that Laxalt associated with such people. But Laxalt isn't running for senator anymore, he's running for president and he now faces a national audience.

Laxalt complains that the press has already gnawed too much on his leg, but compared to Gary Hart he's been let off easy. Perhaps that's because probing the character of this affable Nevadan is less titillating than shouting: Are you now, or have you ever been, an adulterer?

The wicked Oscar Wilde explained this weakness of journalism a century ago when he wrote: "The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands. In centuries before ours the public nailed the ears of journalists to the pump. That was quite hideous. In this century journalists have nailed their own ears to the keyhole."

The Laxalt case suggest that journalists, if anything, should spend more time with their "ears to the keyholes" to find out who's really been in bed with our politicians.

Ken Auletta is a columnist for The New York Daily News and the author of "Greed and Glory on Wall Street."