Less than two minutes remained in our 22-minute CNN interview with George W. Bush in Des Moines last Saturday, when my partner Rowland Evans asked whether the governor of Texas would "never" answer a question about rumored past use of hard drugs. "I know how the game works," he replied. "And I ain't playing."

That sounded like "never," and Bush's closest advisers confirm that judgment. "For better or for worse," one such supporter told me, "he has made this decision, and that's the way it's going to be." That raises the issue of how long reporters will ask Bush whether he ever used cocaine and how much his political opponents, particularly Democrats, will make of it.

The cocaine question is the only cloud today threatening the runaway front-runner for the Republican nomination and a solid general election favorite. Republican politicians staking their party's fate on the governor say they are convinced he never used cocaine. Indeed, hordes of investigative reporters have uncovered no eyewitness.

So why not just say no? "The minute you answer one question, they float another rumor," Bush told us Saturday. In private, say associates, he goes further -- predicting the next question: Did you ever use marijuana? With Bush a 22-year-old bachelor in 1968, the assumption is widespread that he probably did. But if he said yes, he wonders, would that tell young people that it's all right to smoke pot now if you finally get straight?

The Bush camp's hope is that sooner or later, reporters will stop asking the question, but that may be a long way off. Our television interview is a case in point. Contradicting claims by Steve Forbes that he hides his views or doesn't have any, Bush was responsive in detailing his position on more than a dozen issues -- with a surprise or two.

He proposed rolling back President Clinton's 1993 tax increases (something that the Republican Congress has never attempted). He promised to act if China attacks Taiwan. He said he would end, not mend, the present affirmative action system. He liked being called the nation's most antiabortion governor, and praised the National Rifle Association. He endorsed Clinton's don't-ask-don't-tell policy for homosexuals in the military.

But the only part of the interview that made the weekend news flow was his drugs non-answer. At the White House, political operatives expressed delight. While Democratic presidential challenger Bill Bradley has ruled out the cocaine question, Vice President Al Gore's supporters do not conceal their hopes that the issue will erode Bush's popularity. The normally prudent Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, let himself get carried away at breakfast Aug. 4 with Washington correspondent Godfrey Sperling's regular gathering of journalists.

At least one reporter wrote that Daschle was challenging the news media to check out the Bush cocaine rumors, and the senator responded that he actually said "it is absolutely appropriate and acceptable for Mr. Bush to refuse to answer questions about his personal behavior." Neither version is totally accurate, to judge from the tape recording of his remarks. The exact quote: "The media in general seems to be respecting more his privacy and his lack of willingness to discuss his past than you might have been with others, but . . . that's something each public person has to make his or her decisions about."

Bush's Republican rivals dare not echo Daschle. Although aides to conservative challengers have criticized the governor's silence, none of the eight rivals who shared the stage at Ames, Iowa, last weekend even hinted at raising the issue. Scarcely a soul among the 25,000 Iowans voting in the straw poll had any interest in the question other than contempt for the news media that kept raising it.

Similarly, when the surviving Republican candidates finally meet Jan. 15 in Des Moines for a full-fledged debate, it is hard to imagine that any of Bush's GOP competitors will turn to ask him a question he has said he would never answer. But would Al Gore? By the time Bush and Gore confront each other, the governor is betting that this issue will have lost its steam, for he certainly will say nothing more.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.