Thursday, March 4th 2004, 6:49AM

Never mind Iraq, terrorism and the economy.

For some conspiracy-minded voters, the real issue of the 2004 presidential campaign is the allegedly sinister influence of Skull and Bones.

Both President President Bush and his all-but-certain Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, were members of the elite and secretive club that meets in a windowless mausoleum on the Yale campus in New Haven.

Both Kerry, Class of '66, and Bush, Class of '68, are extremely reluctant to discuss their common ties to what Skull and Bones expert Ron Rosenbaum calls "the most powerful of all secret societies in the strange Yale secret-society system."

Back in August, "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert gave Kerry the third degree on his Bones connection.

"What does that tell us?" Russert demanded.

"Not much, because it's a secret," Kerry parried.

"Is there a secret handshake? Is there a secret code?"

"I wish there were something secret I could manifest there."

On the Feb. 8 installment of "Meet the Press," the President was similarly uncommunicative.

"It's so secret we can't talk about it," he told Russert.

"What does that mean for America?" Russert pressed. "The conspiracy theorists are going to go wild."

"I'm sure they are," Bush agreed with a nervous giggle.

Since its founding in 1832, Skull and Bones has had fewer than 2,000 members, including three Presidents - Bush, his father and William Howard Taft - and such powerbrokers as W. Averell Harriman, Henry Stimson and Henry Luce, who all engaged in what Rosenbaum calls "certain occult rituals of the ruling class."

Bonesmen tend to help other Bonesman. The current President has staffed his administration with such Bones brothers as Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William H. Donaldson, Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum, Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago Roy Austin and Edward McNally, general counsel to the Office of Homeland Security.

Skull and Bones investigator Alexandra Robbins, author of the book "Secrets of the Tomb," told Lowdown yesterday that the society is positively gleeful over the Bush-Kerry contest.

"Individual Bonesmen will sway according to their personal affiliations," she said, "but the Bonesmen I've spoken to have said it's a win-win situation."

In what might be eerie coincidence or further disturbing evidence of a scheme for world domination, The Washington Post has assigned Bonesman Dana Milbank to chronicle the battle between Bush and Kerry.

"I have been assigned to monitor all secret hand signals during the debates," Milbank told me - half in jest but wholly in earnest?

"I have it on good information that if this one gets tied up in a recount, [late Supreme Court Justice and Bonesman] Potter Stewart will return from the grave to write the majority opinion."


ENTHUSIASM CURBED: HBO star and "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David sounds less than thrilled

with wife Laurie's high profile as a political activist.

"It's bad for comedy!" he tells - or, rather yells - in an interview with Elle magazine.

"I've begged her to go back to her maiden name. I don't need all the attention from it," he adds. "Stop dragging me in!"

BROWN-NOSING? In a footnote to the exciting personnel changes at New York magazine, I hear that a few weeks before Adam Moss was named editor in chief, new owner Bruce Wasserstein was in very serious discussions with none other than Tina Brown.

A knowledgeable source told me that the former Talk and New Yorker editor and the billionaire financier were even discussing contract language - but that negotiations collapsed over Brown's insistence that Wasserstein agree never to interfere with her editorial decisions.

"Wildly exaggerated," Brown called this account yesterday, adding that her contractual obligations to CNBC and The Washington Post would have prevented her from taking on the New York job anyway. "Adam Moss was always the first choice," she added.


Gay activist Larry Kramer, who gained celebrity status as founder of the militant AIDS awareness group ACT UP, has written The New York Times a scorching E-mail in defense of fired stringer Jay Blotcher.

In an open letter to Times CEO Arthur Sulzberger Jr. - which he copied to scores of opinion-leaders inside and outside The Times, including several openly gay reporters - Kramer protested "the ridiculous dismissal of Jay Blotcher ... because he had once been a member of


Fourteen years ago, Blotcher spent eight months as spokesman for the organization. He later repped other groups before turning to journalism full-time in 2001.

Times Metro Editor Susan Edgerley explained to the Gay City News that she dropped Blotcher, who wrote four stories and contributed reporting to three others during his three years as a stringer, "to protect against any appearance of conflict of interest."

Kramer raged at Sulzberger: "You do not dismiss Larry Altman from writing for you because of conflict of interest; he writes about the [Centers for Disease Control] all the time and he once worked for them. Bernard Weinraub writes about Hollywood and his wife [Amy Pascal] heads Columbia Pictures. Talk about conflict of interest."

The Times has curtailed Weinraub's coverage of the movie industry in recent years, and spokeswoman Catherine Mathis says that Altman, a physician, hasn't worked for the government since 1966.

"We try to avoid employing people who are identified with a cause," Mathis explained, "because it creates the possibility that readers may wonder if their copy is written in

pursuit of that cause."

Yesterday Blotcher told me he isn't seeking reinstatement, but is grateful for Kramer's support.

"God bless Larry," he said.

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