IN MICHIGAN the political battling among the Republican candidates is getting hotter than ever. Not that the voters are involved: Michigan Republicans use an old system, banned by the Democrats' rules but still on the state law books, under which some 9,000 precinct delegates elected in August 1986 meet in conventions in 83 counties next Jan. 14. There they will choose some 1,800 delegates to a state convention in Grand Rapids, which meets Jan. 29 and selects the state's 77 delegates to the national convention in New Orleans. These will be the first delegates selected by either party: whoever wins the most, or does the best job exceeding expectations, will get juicy headlines and priceless television time, which could make a difference in Iowa, New Hampshire and the "Lesser Antilles" states that vote before Super Tuesday, March 8.

The favorites to win most of the delegates now are Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp. Their followers in coalition elected enough delegates last winter to control the February 1987 state convention and elect a majority on the party's state central committee. Strategists for George Bush, who spent more than $1 million and thought they elected more precinct delegates in 1986, have fought back furiously. Both sides have used a familiar tactic of people facing defeat in a contest: they have tried to change the rules. The Bush forces tried to get the Democratic state House and the governor to give local and party officials automatic votes at county conventions. The Democrats, with nothing at stake, said no. Then the Bush people in various counties changed the rule that said state delegates are elected countywide at-large and started to subdivide counties to maximize their strength. In response the Robertson-Kemp coalition threatens to have the state central committee change the rules to require county at-large elections. The Bush people complain that this would violate state law and an April 1987 agreement between the camps not to change any rules. The Robertson and Kemp people say the Bush people violated the agreement first. Nahhhh, nah, na, nahh, nah.

It should be obvious to anyone who has stayed with this account so far that there is no right or wrong in any of this. Both sides want to win, and naturally both care more about winning than they do about the sanctity of the party rules and agreements. The Michigan Republicans who complain that their party is being torn apart by newcomers backing different presidential candidates set themselves up for this and deserve no sympathy; Bush leader Pete Secchia's complaints about "fascist tactics" and his comparison of the Bush forces (wait till you hear this) to victims of Nazi persecution is as deranged a statement as you're likely to hear this year -- at least we hope so. Michigan Republicans are demonstrating the interesting fact that it's not just Democrats who can lose the point of politics in a preposterous and frustrating obsession with rules.