SUNNYVALE, CA–Telling reporters and critics to "stick to the issues that matter," Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush declined to answer questions Monday concerning his alleged involvement in a 1984 Brownsville, TX, mass murder, in which 17 people were ritualistically murdered and skinned.

Bush lashes out at critics who "insist on harping on bygones when Americans are hurting today."

"I will not stoop to discussing that," said Bush during a campaign stop at a Bay Area software-packaging plant. "We've got people across this country without health care, a broken educational system, taxes that are way too high, and all you want to talk about is something that may or may not have happened 16 years ago? I'm sorry, but I find that offensive."

The Bush campaign has found itself increasingly dogged by what is being dubbed "The Mass-Murder Issue." On April 3, 1984, 17 members of Children Of The Fold, a fringe religious group, were found brutally murdered in the basement of the Brownsville apartment building they used as their temple. The bodies were badly mutilated, many with skin removed, and numerous severed legs were nailed to a wall in the configuration of a seven-pointed star, the cult's symbol. Many of the victims' hearts and brains were cut out.

Bush, who lived in the same neighborhood as the sect and reportedly attended several of its meetings, disappeared the night of the slayings and resurfaced three days later, saying that he had "taken a trip to clear his head." A pen from Bush's oil company was found to have been used as a gouging tool in a victim's eye socket, and bloody footprints at the scene were found to match a pair of Bush's shoes. The future governor of Texas was never formally charged, and in October 1984, after a six-month investigation, the case was ruled a mass suicide.

The issue leapt to the fore again on March 1, when, during a campaign stop in Cheektowaga, NY, Bush lashed out at a reporter who asked if he would "ever directly address these lingering allegations once and for all."

"Now look," Bush said, "I've been asked about this repeatedly the past few months, and I'm going to say this once and for all: This campaign is about tax reform, it's about strengthening our military, and it's about restoring our nation's traditional core values. This has nothing to do with some terrible, unfortunate event that certain opponents of mine are saying I was involved in nearly 20 years ago."

The grim 1984 murder scene.

Bush then reiterated his hardline anti-mass-murder stance. "I abhor mass murder. I find it morally repugnant and deeply reprehensible," Bush said. "Of all the major presidential candidates, I have taken the strongest public stance on this issue, speaking out against it time and time again over the years. And, if elected president, I will do continue to do everything in my power to bring this issue to the fore."

Despite the remarks, Bush was again pressed on the issue two days later during a stop in Springfield, MA. Asked by a Boston Globe reporter to explain the bite marks on three of the victims that perfectly matched Bush's dental records, the candidate said: "Look, you guys, I'm just not going to get in the gutter with you and play that game. If you're interested in slinging mud, that's fine, but you can count me out. The voters of America want to hear me talk about my plan for sustained, long-term economic growth, not about whose face I supposedly ate years before I became involved in politics."

According to political pundits, Bush's dodging of the mass-murder question has damaged his campaign.

"When Bush refuses to answer one way or the other, he comes off as a shady politician who cannot be trusted," said Robert Novak of CNN's The Capital Gang. "He also comes off as an insane mass murderer who kills lots of people and eats them."

Even before his latest round of remarks, Bush's credibility was tarnished. On Jan. 20, during a radio interview on Pittsburgh's KDKA, he said he has "not committed a single mass murder in the past 16 years"–just one day after making a similar comment mentioning 15 years.

Novak said that at this point, Bush would better off coming clean with any wrongdoing.

"Hiding the truth, in many ways, does more harm to Bush than simply confessing to the slayings would," Novak said. "A lot of voters feel he could bolster his campaign by admitting his guilt, expressing regret, and moving on. The way he's running the campaign now, he comes off as disingenuous and secretive. No one wants that in a president."