The New York Daily News asked 12 presidential candidates last week if they had ever used cocaine, but it was really only interested in the one who wouldn't answer.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has steadfastly refused to say whether he used illegal drugs in what he calls his "irresponsible" youth. But news organizations appear increasingly disinclined to accept that response. And their persistence is making the question a campaign issue, despite the lack of any evidence tying Bush to past cocaine use.

"As soon as they ask it, it becomes a story and is put in circulation in a way that may be very unfair to the person who's asked," said Richard Lowry, editor of National Review. Still, he said of Bush's response: "Most people conclude if he can't answer no, there must be some problem."

The Daily News made its inquiries after Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said at a press breakfast last week that past drug use was "a legitimate question" for presidential candidates and suggested journalists were giving Bush an easy ride.

Eleven of the 12 candidates denied through spokesmen that they had ever used cocaine; a Bush spokeswoman declined to answer. The headline: "Bush Won't Reveal If He's Used Cocaine."

"It seemed to me that asking the whole dozen of them was a more fair way than just singling out one," said Daily News reporter Timothy Burger, who attended the Daschle breakfast. "Somehow the question has become a fairly mainstream question. . . . With all the other candidates answering squarely, across the ideological spectrum, they appeared not to have a problem with the question."

Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, said yesterday that "as a former reporter, I was stunned that the press has given as much attention to rumors that are completely unfounded."

Bush, she said, "has been honest about the fact he's made mistakes in the past. He's not going to play the game of trying to disprove the rumor du jour. This kind of rumor, gossip and innuendo drives people out of politics, and he is willing to take that on. He recognizes that will sometimes lead journalists to make mistaken assumptions."

The buzz is clearly growing louder. The cocaine rumor has been debated in recent days on "Fox News Sunday," CNN's "Capital Gang," CNBC's "Hardball" and ABC's "This Week."

A number of news organizations have posed the question. Two Washington Post reporters pressed Bush about cocaine use in reporting a seven-part series on his life. "I'm not going to talk about what I did years ago," the governor said.

A reporter for New Hampshire's WMUR-TV also asked the question on a CNN program. "It is irrelevant what I did 20 to 30 years ago," Bush said.

Questions about the personal lives of candidates have become far more common in the hypercompetitive media climate of the '90s. But they are often triggered by specific allegations, such as when Gennifer Flowers charged in 1992 that she had had a long-running affair with candidate Bill Clinton.

During that campaign, when the Daily News editorial board asked Clinton if he had ever used marijuana, he replied: "I have never broken the laws of my country." He later acknowledged in a television interview that he had tried pot while in Britain, adding famously that he "didn't inhale."

Other politicians, including Vice President Gore, have acknowledged past marijuana use with no apparent penalty. But an admission of having tried cocaine, the focus of major federal antidrug initiatives and much inner-city violence, could be more problematic.

The larger question for the media is whether there should be some kind of statute of limitations on rumors about youthful transgressions by candidates.

"On any question involving drugs, the press is just totally hypocritical," said Walter Shapiro, a USA Today columnist. "For those over 35 and under 70, there are significant periods of one's life that one tries to pretend didn't happen when you're asking about drugs." He added that it is "far more relevant what [Bush] knows about foreign policy than what he knows about what went up his nose or didn't go up his nose."

Other journalists observe that Bush has talked openly about drinking heavily before he was 40 and has denied any extramarital affairs, rendering his silence on the cocaine question rather selective.

"The media's attitude is, if you're going to talk about your alcohol abuse and your relations with your wife, why won't you answer this question?" said National Review's Lowry. "I think eventually he'll have to answer it."

CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush has refused to answer specific questions about his "irresponsible" youth.