LET’S TALK COWS. THAT’S RIGHT, those big, smelly, cud-chewing, mooing oafs that are ruining the state of California. I mean, that’s what you want to talk about, isn’t it? That is the big issue on your mind as we lurk just three weeks out from a statewide Democratic primary, isn’t it?

If not for you, then at least it is for the two Democratic rivals vying for the gubernatorial nomination — Phil Angelides and Steve Westly. At their second of only three scheduled face-to-face debates held in Los Angeles last week (and supposedly centered on environmental issues), dairies were the one issue they most targeted.

Man, it turned into a real cow-chip-tossing contest. Angelides was steaming hot, outraged, driven bonkers by just how soft Westly has been on cows. No, he doesn’t see Westly as a commie-lovin’ pinko. But, in Angelides’ view, Westly was one more bovine fellow traveler, a rank apologist for the black-and-white Holstein plague. “Steve Westly sided with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the big industrial dairies,” thundered the tall, gangly state treasurer.

You sort of half-expected Angelides to reach into his coat pocket and start waving around the secret list of dairies this cow-symp Westly has been supporting. Turns out that Westly, as a member of some state panel called the Pollution Control Financing Authority, voted to support a moratorium on low-interest loans to the cow farms that were, indeed, listed as major polluters. The moratorium was proposed by Angelides. But later, Westly (and Schwarzenegger) refused to extend the moratorium, thereby allowing the Holsteins to continue their systematic despoiling of the state.

But Westly wasn’t about to be cow-baited out of this race. No, sir. He lumbered back at Angelides’ charge and said that it was not he, but Angelides himself, who had approved $100 million in loans to these same, subversive and dangerous dairies. What a shocker! Is anyone in Congress listening? Is all of America asleep? Do none dare call it treason?

At least, the gaggle of press watching the duel from a closed room on the second floor of the debate venue — the Museum of Tolerance — were so aghast at these damning dual revelations that we burst out into laughter. Probably just a nervous response on our part — a reaction to the shock induced by seeing such blatant compromising of our national security. When the dairies were politically milked by both sides again that night — and again and again, and probably a fifth time — we were beside ourselves. Even Garry South, Steve Westly’s top operative, who was in the room with us, had to cover his mouth in laughter as the dairies resurfaced like a burp of curdled milk. A couple of enviro spinners brought in by the Angelides camp stared unmoving at the TV monitors, nervously avoiding our glances, when their candidate went back a third or fourth time to pick on the cows.

I guess this debate summed up in one short hour just about everything haywire (no pun intended) with American politics. Two Democratic politicians — both of them with defensible environmental records, both of them endorsed by the Sierra Club — so alike in their views that they had to drag some poor defenseless cows into the ring to manufacture an issue of controversy. And we wonder why this is going to be a low-turnout election, one in which Democratic consultant Kam Kuwata predicts that both campaigns are going to have to “surgically” find their voters.

The debate was sponsored by KABC Channel 7, but the same station neglected to broadcast it live, delaying it into the schedule Siberia of Saturday. In fact, no L.A. channel carried the debate live. Maybe that’s also why so many friends I spoke to about this raised their eyebrow and asked, What debate? What campaign? What election? Is it really June 6?

Actually, it started this week. Absentee ballots are already in the mail. And voting has begun before almost anyone in the state has heard one full debate between the two candidates. Not that it would matter.

And what about those cows, anyway? Those selfless, enchained creatures from whom we squeeze our daily sustenance. I can tell you they don’t enjoy being scapegoated by the Democrats and they don’t enjoy being the last minority in California that can be openly disdained. Who speaks for them?

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