Texas Gov. George W. Bush told a newspaper yesterday that he has not used drugs in the past seven years but refused to answer other questions from reporters about illegal drug use before that time.

Bush's answer to a Dallas Morning News reporter marked the first time the Republican presidential candidate has responded to a question about drug use. He had vigorously declined to do so, saying he would not play the "Washington game" of responding to rumors.

The Texas paper asked Bush whether he would insist that appointees in a future Bush administration answer questions about drug use that are part of the normal FBI background check.

"As I understand it, the current form asks the question, 'Did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?' and I will be glad to answer that question, and the answer is, 'No.' " Bush said.

Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, said last night Bush had answered the question because "this is going to be asked of anybody who serves in his administration, should he become president. He feels he should take the lead in answering it. It is not a question about the mistakes of a young man. This speaks to how he has fulfilled his responsibility as a mature person."

Asked why Bush had never before answered questions about drug use this way, Tucker said: "This particular question was never asked before. . . . That exact question was posed to him today."

Bush has said in the past that when he was "young and irresponsible," he did things that were irresponsible. Tucker said the answer Bush gave yesterday "represents how he has fulfilled his responsibility as a governor, an employer, a husband and a father.

But she said Bush would not respond to other questions based on rumors and would not itemize his actions as a youth. "It is irresponsible to itemize it at this point," she said, making clear she was not saying whether Bush had or had not used illegal drugs earlier than seven years ago.

Bush has been asked repeatedly about whether he used illegal drugs, including cocaine, earlier in his life, although no credible allegations have been made that he did so. The Washington Post and other papers have looked into rumors about drug use and have found no evidence to sustain them.

Nonetheless, the questions have persisted, in part because while Bush has openly talked about his decision to quit drinking when he turned 40 and has answered questions about marital infidelity, he had not responded to questions about drug use--at least not until yesterday.

All of Bush's rivals for the Republican nomination have said they never used cocaine.

The question came up again yesterday in Austin and while Bush was campaigning in Louisiana. "Somebody floats a rumor and causes you to ask a question, and that's the game in American politics," Bush said in Austin. "I refuse to play it."

"Do I think they're being planted?" he said of the rumors. "I know they're being planted. And they're ridiculous, and they're absurd, and the people of America are sick and tired of this kind of politics. And I'm not participating." As for who is spreading the stories, he said, "You need to ask other people."

Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating, the chairman of the Republican Governors' Association and a prominent Bush supporter, told reporters in Washington yesterday that Bush should answer questions "about private conduct," according to newspaper reports. Keating said he believes there is nothing in Bush's background of that nature.

Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) recently told reporters he believed Bush should answer questions about whether he used illegal drugs, a sign that Democrats may persist in raising the issue throughout the campaign unless Bush puts the issue to rest.

CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush recognizes reporter at Austin news conference. He later said he'd pass U.S. test for security clearance.