(CNN) -- In the first stage of the nominating process, the candidates were hunting the elusive "Big Mo" -- momentum.
Did anybody get the Big Mo? Not really. Every time candidates won a primary or caucus, like Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in Iowa on January 3, they claimed to have captured the momentum -- only to see it get away a few days later when another candidate became the Comeback Kid. Like Hillary Clinton and John McCain in New Hampshire on January 8.
The result? No Mo.
As we approach Super Tuesday, the candidates have started hunting for smaller game.
"We're watching the delegate count very closely and want to be able to rack 'em up,'' Mitt Romney said last Saturday. Now they're hunting for delegates.That could go on for months, given the way the rules work.
Democrats have the same rules for all states. Delegates are allocated in proportion to a candidate's primary vote.
If you get a quarter of the vote, you get a quarter of the delegates. Moreover, most of the delegates are allocated by congressional district. So when the candidates go hunting for delegates in the 16 Democratic primary states on Super Tuesday, they have to look for them in 183 separate congressional districts.
Take California, which has 370 pledged delegates to the Democratic convention. Winning the state will get you some good publicity and a plurality share of California's 129 statewide delegates. But that doesn't mean as much as winning delegates in each of the state's 53 congressional districts, which have a total of 241 delegates.
"California will have the most delegates and the biggest primary on February 5th,'' Hillary Clinton said in Salinas on Tuesday. "I'm going to work as hard as I can from one end of this great state to the other.''
The hunt for delegates gives candidates an incentive to stay in the race. They can win delegates even if they don't win states.
On January 15, John Edwards pledged, "I'm in this for the long haul. We're continuing to accumulate delegates. There's actually a very narrow margin between Sen. Obama, Sen. Clinton and myself on delegates.''
Those delegates can give you a voice at the convention. They can also give you real bargaining power if no candidate goes into the convention with a majority. Watch Schneider explain why each delegate matters »
Obama acknowledged that on Thursday in introducing a party official in the crowd and pointing out that he was a superdelegate.
"So I just got one delegate right here, from Waring Howe," Obama said. "I am proud of that. It's all about the delegates. All about the delegates, and I am grateful for him."
The Republican Party allows each state to have its own rules for picking delegates. Five Super Tuesday Republican primaries will divide the delegates in proportion to the vote, more or less like the Democrats. In three states, the winner of each congressional district wins all the Republican delegates for that district. In California, that means 53 separate contests for Republican delegates.
Seven Super Tuesday Republican primaries are winner-take-all. Whoever carries the state wins all the state's delegates. The whole caboodle. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are winner-take-all.
If Rudy Giuliani wins his home state and the two neighboring states, that will give him a huge delegate lead. But the latest polls in New York and New Jersey show John McCain leading Giuliani. Oops.
The hunt for delegates prolongs the nominating process and keeps the parties divided. "It's not just how you are doing at the beginning. It's not even how you are doing in the middle,'' Mike Huckabee said on Sunday. "It's whether you have some kick left at the end.''
But is it good for the party to have candidates still kicking at the end? A party is supposed to unite around the winner as quickly as possible. There is research to show that the more divided a party is after the primaries, the less well it does in November.
Primaries are supposed to be a killing field. Their purpose is to finish off weak candidates and get their bodies off the field. But the the delegate hunt keeps losing candidates alive. They can keep on accumulating delegates. They live to fight another day. E-mail to a friend