WILL THE RACE for the 1988 Republican nomination for president turn out to hinge on a lawsuit brought in some county courthouse in Michigan? It could happen. Michigan's Republican voters, a million or so strong, got their last crack at determining the makeup of their state's 1988 national convention delegation back in August 1986, when they elected some 9,000 precinct delegates, who are now entitled to vote in county conventions next January; those county conventions choose delegates to the state convention, who choose 77 delegates to the Republican National Convention in New Orleans.

So a year ago August the delegates were elected, and so far as anyone can figure -- precinct delegates are elected without any indication of presidential preference and are perfectly free to change their minds -- George Bush won the largest number, followed closely by Pat Robertson and distantly by Jack Kemp. But at the state party convention last winter the Bush forces, many of them longtime party officers, were defeated when the Robertson and Kemp forces combined, with the Robertson people supplying most of the numbers and the Kemp people most of the political savvy. To derail the Robertson-Kemp alliance, the Bush folks argued that some 1,100 Republican nominees for state, county and local office should have votes at county conventions, in addition to the 9,000 precinct delegates; the nominees are thought to favor Mr. Bush by a large margin. The Republican State Central Committee, by a 60-41 vote, decided the 1,100 nominees don't have a vote at county conventions. That's the decision the Bush people want to challenge in court.

You don't have to judge the merits of this arcane case to conclude that this is a system poorly thought out and ill-adapted to the work of selecting a president. Both sides may very well have an argument, and neither side may have a very good one. There are ironies here. The Robertson supporters, who have been trying to get more people into Republican politics, want to keep out those who go to the trouble of actually running for office as Republicans. The Bush supporters, many of whom have been intoning for years a credo that says the base of the Republican Party needs to be broadened, are now desperately trying to swamp the large number of new people Mr. Robertson has been broadening the party with. And then there is the spectacle of candidates of the party that says it wants less activist courts submitting a dispute over its party rules to the courts in a state where most of the recent judges have been appointed by Democrats. Only in Americ