A visitor spending a few hours on the streets of Chicago with Democratic mayoral candidate Harold Washington starts to wonder which contest he has been reading about.

Washington, the second-term congressman seeking to become Chicago's first black mayor, has been criticized for ignoring white voters; for failing to run a unification campaign; for being, in effect, a reverse racist.

Read the papers and watch the evening TV news, and you wonder how a supposedly bright man could be so dumb. But ride with him for a day as he tries to squeeze victory out of what could be an excruciatingly close race, and you see a man doing all the things his critics accuse him of neglecting to do.

You see him press the flesh and eat a vegetarian lunch with supporters at the Heartland Cafe in far Northside Rogers Park; watch as he unveils his interracial transition team of Chicago bigwigs at the Bismarck Hotel; listen as he provides a calculatedly low-key, unification response to a Jesse Jackson stemwinder at Operation PUSH Headquarters on the Southside, and you wonder why this aspect of his campaign had escaped your attention.

It's the fault of the press, he'll tell you --a complaint familiar to any reporter who has spent time on the hustings with a troubled candidate.

"I've carried this unification theme throughout the campaign," he says. "I've talked about multi-ethnicity, about the need to work together, about my own background in terms of coalition politics, which is pretty clear if you look at it, stressing problems that are common to all neighborhoods irrespective of how people feel. We hit that theme hard, hard, hard. And the press won't print it. (Republican nominee Bernard) Epton will say something, and the press wants me to respond to it; I say something, and they want him to respond. If they can't find some conflict, they aren't interested."

But wouldn't he find it a marvelous freedom if he could ride to victory next Tuesday without being beholden to whites in this incredibly race-conscious city?

"Look," he says, "I can't win with just black votes. That's manifestly obvious. And I'd have to be manifestly stupid to try. The white voters I'm able to see in person understand that. Unfortunately, if the press says something for long enough, it becomes accepted as fact. I could take the statement and modify it, and it would be exactly what my position is: I don't want to be beholden to the machine. I've taken a calculated risk in challenging the machine and maintaining that challenge. I won't change that. If I change that, my campaign won't mean anything; I'd be just another guy who wants to be mayor. If that's all my campaign means, I'd rather stay in Congress."

Washington is explaining once again his oft-repeated declaration that he won't "grovel" for the endorsement and support of white leaders of the Chicago Democratic machine. "I've said all along that I will be treated (by the party leadership) like other winners of the Democratic nomination, or there'll be no getting along.

"Every ward committeeman who has defected, except one, comes from a strong ethnic neighborhood where, generally speaking, the people are hostile to blacks. If the committeemen in these wards worked their butts off, they probably couldn't take the ward for me, and they might sound the death knell for themselves. I understand that. They're in the same position a black committeeman would be in if he came out for Epton. My position with these guys is: do nothing, say nothing. Just keep the vote down."

That, he insists, is all the help he needs -- that and some 20 percent of the white vote, which he hopes to garner in the more liberal lakefront wards--to turn what is touted as a close election into a virtual landslide.

A visitor's quick impression is that he just might pull it off.