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As press gives Bush space, some are wondering why

Not long ago, public ruminations by a leading Democrat about the Republican presidential front-runner's possible past illegal drug use would have sent the media pack off and running after a new scandal.

But when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle wondered out loud last week whether the press had scrutinized Bill and Hillary Clinton's pasts more closely than White House hopeful Texas Gov. George W. Bush's, few reporters took the bait.

Bush is the only presidential candidate _ Democrat or Republican _ who has not denied ever using cocaine. But there is no clamor from the media horde for an explanation.

Or, as Daschle put it: "The media in general seem to be respecting far more his privacy and his lack of willingness to discuss his past than you might have been with others."

What's going on here? Did the excesses of Monicagate tame the once-ferocious media beast? Are Washington reporters learning something from public opinion polls that rate them as low as politicians and lawyers and backing away from digging into politicians' personal lives?

The spin doctors have diagnosed America with a serious case of scandal fatigue. And to be sure, many reporters here are tired of the media circuses that develop out of the endless chase for dirt and impropriety.

But Tom Rosenstiel, a former reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, said the dynamic is more complex.

"I think the term scandal fatigue is a bad one, because it's also possible that the public is (becoming) more discriminating, and the press is trying to be more discriminating, too," said Rosenstiel, who is now director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"Not that long ago, marijuana use could disqualify a Supreme Court nominee," he said, referring to the collapse of the Douglas Ginsburg nomination in 1987. "Now, drug use _ early youthful drug use _ is not a disqualifying set of facts."

Rosenstiel's theory is that political reforms cleared out the old "smoke-filled rooms" where party operatives once privately vetted candidates. Now, debates about candidates' worthiness to hold office take place publicly in the press.

The result of the public vetting process is that people have a less idealized view of public leaders, he said. "It's not true that they don't care about adultery, but they put it in context," Rosenstiel said.

The view of what disqualifies a person from holding office appears to be evolving as the public's political sophistication grows.

In 1987, allegations of adultery sank Democrat Gary Hart's presidential bid. By 1992, Clinton could wink and nod at similar allegations and still find himself in the Oval Office.

Likewise, the issue of Vietnam-era draft avoidance has lost some potency since 1992, when it was revealed that Clinton had schemed to obtain a coveted slot in the National Guard.

Bush, too, dodged combat. He was admitted to the Texas Air National Guard in 1968. News reports have raised questions about whether the younger Bush's swift admission had anything to do with his father, George, who was then a congressman from Houston.

Then there are the questions about Bush and drugs. Rumors have circulated for years but no evidence has surfaced to back them up. Bush has only admitted to mistakes in his past and having had a problem with drinking. He says he gave up alcohol but has declined to answer questions about cocaine.

Regarding the unsubstantiated rumors that Bush used cocaine, Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat said: "Sure. It's a legitimate question." But, Daschle added that he believes a candidate has a right to refuse to answer and that the media should put any alleged behavior in context.

"You ought to make that judgment as to how important this question is in the overall scheme of whether this person is competent to hold office or not," Daschle said.

In voting to impeach Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice last year, House Republicans cited a pattern of questionable conduct by the president that continued while he was in the White House.

Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, a member of the House Republican leadership and Bush supporter, said no such pattern has been alleged against Bush.

"I think it's unfair to try to take a snapshot of a person's life 25 to 30 years ago" and use it to evaluate his current performance, Watts said Friday.

Bush has repeatedly said he will not comment on his past. "I'm not going to talk about what I did years ago. This is a game where they float rumors, force a person to fight off a rumor; then they'll float another rumor. And I'm not going to participate," he told the Washington Post.

Daschle offered up to reporters that he'd never used cocaine. "I don't think I've ever (even) seen it, personally," he said. He added he is watching Bush's high-wire act with interest and sympathy.

"I think it's always difficult for somebody in public life to try to draw the line between what is personal and what is public. I think George W. Bush is trying to do that right now. He may or may not be successful at it," Daschle said.

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.