The Republican had the last angry word Tuesday night, and the word was "slime."

Bernard Epton was talking about the press, specifically Mike Royko, Chicago's senior wise-guy columnist, his pontificating colleagues, and the city's editorial writers, all of whom, Epton said, should be "so ashamed they should resign en masse."

That might have been shrugged off as a the bitter outburst of an exhausted, defeated candidate--except that Epton delivered his fusillade hardly an hour after the polls had closed, and when while the media were announcing he might very well win. Royko, in fact, had just announced on television that he Epton was indeed winning.

Royko concedes he called it wrong. A few weeks ago, on CBS' "60 Minutes," program he predicted Washington would win. Then, on television election night, on television he interpreted early the first ward returns as putting Epton ahead. Early Royko columns in The Sun-Times had been favorable to Washington but his election-day column found him undecided whom to vote for--either a "kook" (Epton) or a "crook" (Washington)--and lamenting that the primary voters had turned down a "two-for-one deal in Jane Byrne."

"Why did I predict Washington would win? I don't remember," Royko said yesterdaytoday. " '60 Minutes' correspondent Ed Bradley walked into my office and asked me and I just looked out the window and started talking. Anyhow, I had thought Epton was a bad candidate all along.

"But then last week I thought I saw a shift in momentum. Washington appeared to be floundering and Epton had a close shot. The reason I said he was winning was I had just talked on the phone to some committeemen who said the white wards were real heavy and the black wards were light in voting. Yeah, those figures were wrong."

The newspapers here play a rough-and-tumble game, but they too are licking their wounds today. It is perhaps too much to say that journalists are searching their souls, but they are at least going over their carbon copies to see if they must share the blame for what Chicago Tribune editor James Squires calls "the vilest campaign in my 20 years of covering politics." Politics has changed here and the press is facing the realization that it may have to change, too. The Daley machine was a good theater for Ben Hecht, but that theater has now been demolished.

Reporter Peter Nolan of television station WMAQ said he had expected Epton to issue an optimistic statement when Epton called him election night. Instead, the Republican candidate delivered a "tirade," saying the reporters who covered him were "just slime and beneath contempt. Somebody like Roger Simon of the Sun-Times is just slime. Royko has a vicious tongue. I know I'm supposed to respect the media but . . . my staff will have a hard time convincing me that litigation should not be filed." There was more that did not air, Nolan said. He said he remembered Epton using the phrase "Hitler-like."

"Hey, being called slime by Bernard Epton is like being called ugly by a frog," said Simon today. "I suppose what he means is I wrote a column election day saying I was voting for Washington. The reason was Epton's supporters for weeks before had taken my columns and then handed out doctored Xeroxes so that it looked like I was supporting him. But I guess you'd have to say that Bernie just doesn't have what they call grace under pressure."

But behind the tough-guy wisecracks is a sense of painful reflection. As the general election turned into a racist free-for-all, the papers found themselves caught between the issues of free speech and restraint, which are the rock and the hard place of journalism.

"This has just been a miserable campaign to cover," said Squires. "Epton had reason to be upset because in the primary the press paid little attention to him. He was treated like the Socialist candidate and obviously that was a miscalculation on the part of the press. Then during the campaign he took a lot of heat for his slogan 'Before it's too late.' " Squires says he is "not quick to defend the press in political coverage, it's not what we do best. We try hard, but we get manipulated."

Last Sunday, Epton declined to go on "Meet the Press" with Harold Washington, withdrawing at the last minute because he said Vernon Jarrett, a black Chicago Tribune columnist, would be a prejudiced interrogator.

Squires says that "toward the end it was clear that one or two people on our staff were on the edge of polarization. Vernon didn't tend to write any Epton columns. We don't censor our people, but we did put on restraints because those columns were becoming issues in the campaign. So I instituted a rule that anybody who wants to write a column has to talk to me in advance so we had some idea of the topic. In two instances the topics didn't get cleared."

Asked if a Vernon Jarrett column was killed, Squires said, "There was a Jarrett column and another column that could be construed as being killed, although they did run later in other forms."

While the bylined columnists were writing their traditional Chicago tommy-gun polemics, and the local television commentators were talking with their chins out (no laid-back Jim Vance or David Schoumacher here; these TV guys pound on the set while telling you both candidates are bums), editors like Squires wondered what to do with page one--where the hard news gets reported as objectively as possible.

"From the beginning," said Squires, "we heard all the vile rumors and the terrible stories. For example, we knew that Epton had gone to a psychiatrist. And we knew that Harold Washington hadn't paid his campaign bills. We intentionally didn't bring it up. If we were to bring up this stuff every day as news, would we just exacerbate the situation? Some of it was such nit-picking that we tried not to do that.

"Then towards the end we heard the worst rumor of all. This was the rumor that Washington had been arrested for sodomy with a 10-year-old boy. All right, we traced it down. We got it traced to the printer of the scurrilous pamphlet and close to the original source. It was a total fabrication and we put that story on page one."

But some Washington supporters complained all along that if the papers had aired and debunked more of the rumors they would not have flourished to the extent that they did.

With the fabrication aired in last Friday's paper, Washington by Saturday was himself waving the pamphlet as an example of the dirty tricks of Epton's supporters. In the end, the rumor seemingly turned to Washington's advantage.

With the dismantling of the Daley machine, the Chicago press will be covering a new group of people in power. Contacts with colorful figures from the old machine are no longer as much in demand as access to political newcomers in the "open administration" of mayor-elect Washington.

"There are precious few blacks in either the print or visual media here," said William Sampson, a sociologist at Northwestern University who is black. Sampson was so much in demand as a television commentator this week that he says he is now "overexposed."

"It's not clear to me that the media now has people who are adept at covering the Washington administration. Not that they aren't good reporters. But they don't have the mindset or the values. For example, when Washington has failures, and he certainly will, will the press see those as the failures of black folks? Or as the failures common to mayors of big, older northern cities?"

Sampson claims that he predicted the margin of Washington's victory by 5,000 votes. "My point is that I was looking at the same figures as the reporters. I'm not a genius. I just happen to know how black folks felt and the reporters really didn't."

The fact is, though, the journalists did come down on the winning side. The blame for the racist tenor of the campaign is now being placed on Jane Byrne's supporters, machine politicians surprised by Washington who then started a vicious whisper campaign. And on Epton, who approved a campaign in which the single question was not city issues but the personal integrity of Washington.

"In retrospect, at least, this was really a magnificent show for democracy," said Tribune editor Squires. "We had a brutal race between a bitterly divided electorate represented by a black, a woman, an Irish candidate and a Jew. And then 82 percent of the voters came out and settled it peacefully despite their differences.

"Somebody ought to give those people a little credit for that."

Meanwhile, the presses rolled. About noon, Royko had finished Thursday's column. Asked what it was about, he said with a Royko growl, "I don't know. Something about with all this unity talk, they better not forget to get the garbage picked up."