Supporters of George W. Bush launched an assault on the news media yesterday for its coverage of rumors that the front-runner for the Republican nomination may have used illegal drugs.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) separately criticized journalists for asking Bush if he had used cocaine in the past. "There's no evidence. All it is is rumors being pushed by his political opponents," DeLay said on "Fox News Sunday."

"I think legitimate journalists can ask questions if there are charges or if there is evidence that there is something wrong. But to be fishing, and running around asking questions and creating this whole aura that there's something sinister in someone's background, I just don't think it's responsible or legitimate," DeLay said.

Kasich, who abandoned his bid for the GOP nomination on July 14 and is backing Bush, urged a new "code of ethics" for journalists. "Sometimes I wonder if they're as worried about discovering the truth as they are about boosting ratings," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"If you take a look at this story, every one of the cable stations just leads with this story, it becomes sensationalized."

Another Bush supporter, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R), said on Fox: "Good solid investigative reporters have spent a great deal of time . . . trying to uncover something. And I think the point is that there is nothing there."

Bush had refused to answer any questions about rumors, unsupported by evidence, that he had taken drugs as a young man. But last week he faced renewed pressure after he agreed to respond to a query from the Dallas Morning News over whether he could meet standard FBI clearance questions about past drug use, and later indicated he had not taken drugs for at least the last 25 years.

Yesterday, Gary Bauer and Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, both challenging Bush for the Republican nomination, repeated calls for the Texas governor to give full answers about any previous illegal drug use. Their view was supported by 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro, and by New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson (R), who has admitted once taking marijuana and cocaine.

Bauer told Fox: "I think anything that involves a felony, I don't see how you're going to be able to get away from it. . . . These are important questions. It does go to law enforcement. I don't think we can say to our kids, 'Look, this is important and we're serious about it' and then be sort of coy when it comes to a question about it."

Hatch, on NBC, said his advice was to "just answer the darned question and get rid of it." He added: "Most of the American people are forgiving."

Ferraro, on the same program, said it was wrong for the Bush campaign to "beat up" on the news media for trying to determine if the governor had once committed a crime. "You have to address this issue because the press understands this is what people want to know. . . . The voters are entitled to weigh what he did and make a decision on that."

Johnson, also on NBC, said his credo was: "Anything that can be revealed, eventually reveal it. . . . There's always time to fix things."

Another challenger for the GOP nomination, former vice president Dan Quayle, said on ABC's "This Week" that he "sort of liked" Bush's earlier attempt to resist talking about the drug issue. "But once you start talking about it, you really are probably obliged to answer most of these questions."

Lincoln Chafee, who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by his father, John H. Chafee (R-R.I), said during a WJAR-TV interview broadcast yesterday that he had tried cocaine several times around 1974, when a student.

"I had three choices--lie, which was not an option, or evade it and receive the consequences of that, or be honest. And I chose to be honest," said Lincoln Chafee, who is mayor of Warwick, R.I.