The details of the process for choosing and allocating delegates to the parties' national conventions are usually sleep-inducing to all but the most dedicated political junkies. But in this year's Democratic race, as Barack Obama searches for the last votes he needs to defeat Hillary Clinton, the rules of the delegate game have become more and more important.
Last week, my efforts to analyze the disputes that have burst out between the two campaigns about the rules were bolstered by a conversation with Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who is neutral in the Clinton-Obama battle. He pointed to four separate rules that could well determine the outcome.
One is the decision by many states to choose delegates through party caucuses rather than primaries. Turnout in the caucuses is much smaller than in primaries - even in states such as Iowa where the candidates invest heavily in ads and campaign time.
Obama has rolled up a big margin in the caucus states. Clinton has complained that the restricted hours and requirement for in-person attendance at the caucuses disadvantage the blue-collar workers where she has her strongest support.
But Hart pointed out that caucuses are traditional in these states and that both candidates knew well in advance they would be competing in them.
The second area of controversy is the national party rule that delegates must be allocated in proportion to the vote, with no winner-take-all contests allowed. On the Republican side, John McCain secured the nomination, for all practical purposes, by winning victories in California, New York, Arizona and New Jersey, among other states, garnering a huge infusion of delegates under the GOP's winner-take-all rules.
Clinton won all of those same states, but the proportional rule limited her delegate haul, boosting Obama's fortunes.
Again, Hart notes that proportional representation has been in the rules for many years and can hardly be seen as an Obama contrivance.
The third controversy centers on the 795 superdelegates, elected and party officials who vote in the convention by virtue of their positions without expressing a candidate preference. Clinton leads by 70 votes among those who have expressed a choice, but nearly 400 of them remain uncommitted.
With Obama leading Clinton by about 150 delegates after his latest wins in Wisconsin and Hawaii, he is closing in on the nomination. But he probably cannot get to his goal without big help from the superdelegates.
Like Clinton, Obama is assiduously wooing those superdelegates, but he is also arguing that they have a duty to ratify whatever the results of the caucuses and primaries show about grass-roots Democratic sentiment. Clinton, on the other hand, says they were placed in the convention as a leavening force of experienced politicians, who should use their own best judgment on the person to lead the Democratic ticket.
Hart says - and I agree - that 20 years of history clearly show they were intended to be free agents, not comparable to the members of the Electoral College. They were empowered because of respect for their judgment.
This dispute may be less significant than it seems, because as politicians who will either be on the ballot themselves or deeply engaged in the November campaign, the superdelegates hardly need urging to take note of the primary results and the polls. Those will weigh heavier on their decision than any other factor - including personal loyalties and preferences.
The fourth dispute concerns the delegations from Michigan and Florida, which were barred last year by the Democratic National Committee after those states jumped the calendar to move to earlier primary dates.
Neither candidate campaigned in those states, but Clinton left her name on both ballots (as Obama did in Florida). She won both, and now is urging that their delegates be seated and counted in Denver.
Hart says, and again I agree, that there is no justification for this retroactive change in the rules. The possibility that seating those delegates could alter the outcome of the race makes it even more imperative that the Democratic National Committee and the convention enforce the rules.
That is a mixed verdict - endorsing Obama's position on caucuses, proportional representation and the Florida-Michigan dispute, and Clinton's stance on the superdelegates.
But Hart's analysis is fair, not dictated by the rival candidates' interests.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at email@example.com.