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Bush dodges cocaine claims as campaign hots up

GEORGE W BUSH, Governor of Texas and front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has come under pressure to reveal whether he has ever taken cocaine, with his silence on the subject becoming a campaign issue in itself.

Of the 12 presidential hopefuls, Mr Bush alone has refused to respond to a question from the New York Daily News about past drug use. Mr Bush has repeatedly refused to answer questions about a youth he has described as ``irresponsible,'' but with every candidate coming forward to declare they have never taken drugs Mr Bush is sounding increasingly defensive.

This week he insisted that the drugs rumours were mere smear tactics that did not merit a response: ``I don't like trashmouth politics. I don't like tearing somebody down.''

Despite the lack of firm evidence linking Mr Bush with drugs, the candidate, dogged by headlines such as that in the Daily News declaring ``Bush Won't Reveal If He's Used Cocaine,'' now faces questioning about the rumours at almost every campaign stop and press interview. Last weekend, the question of Mr Bush's possible drug use was debated on no fewer than four political chat-shows. ``The buzz is clearly growing louder,`` declared The Washington Post yesterday.

Mr Bush's aides argue that responding to the buzz would merely lend credence to unfounded rumours. ``He has been honest about the fact that he's made mistakes in the past. He's not going to play the game of trying to disprove the rumour du jour. This kind of rumour, gossip and innuendo drives people out of politics,'' Karen Hughes, communications director of the Bush campaign, said.

Suspicions raised by Mr Bush's side-stepping the issue of drug use have been compounded by calculated stirring from his opponents. Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, said drug use to be a ``legitimate question'' and implied that Mr Bush was being let off the hook.

Vice-President Al Gore, the leading Democratic contender, has admitted trying marijuana in the past without affecting his poll ratings, but should evidence of cocaine use come to light, it could be far more damaging for Mr Bush' presidential campaign.

An interview that Mr Bush gave to the newly-launched Talk magazine, in which he swore and allegedly made fun of the convicted murderer, Carla Faye Tucker, has also provided his enemies with ammunition. Gary Bauer, the conservative Republican and rival for the nomination, said he was ``pro-death penalty'' but called Mr Bush's comments ``inappropriate, disgusting and profoundly disturbing.'' The conservative columnist, George Will, said the comments ``suggests an atmosphere of adolescence, a lack of gravitas even a recklessness.''

(The Times, London)

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