These are tense, frightened, confusing days in the 47th Ward. On the streets, people wear "Republican for a Day" buttons. "Epton for Mayor" signs are pasted on telephone poles on every block.

Every night this week, the lights burned until midnight in the 47th Ward Regular Democratic Organization headquarters above the Ace Hardware store on West Lawrence Avenue.

The organization's patronage workers are out in full force, trying for the first time in its history to elect a Republican mayor.

There is no question that the traditionally Democratic ward, an enclave of white ethnic neighborhoods northwest of downtown, will vote overwhelmingly for Republican Bernard E. Epton on Tuesday. Supporters of Rep. Harold Washington (D-Ill.) hope for no better than 15 percent of the ward's vote.

Race obviously is a big factor. Polish, Irish, German, Greek and Hispanic voters here harbor deep fears and resentments about Washington, a black.

At some taverns, "Bigots for Bernie" buttons are popular. At Bethany Nursing Home, Robert Trettin said: "The story is going around here: 'Go in your room and lock your door for two days if Washington is elected.' "

But it would be incorrect to dismiss anti-Washington feelings as pure racial prejudice. It is far more complex than that, involving serious questions about Washington's record, his relationship with white party leaders and neighborhood self-preservation.

"I think it's very much a racial thing, and I'm not talking about white racism," Epton supporter Susan Dobbs said the other day on Western Avenue. "I think Washington is prejudiced and he'd do more for blacks than whites."

A few blocks away, Elmer Vitek, a printer, stood beside the chain link fence around his yard on Damen Avenue.

"I don't think Washington would hurt me personally, but I think he would favor blacks," he said. "We're all human, but the blacks think they deserve everything."

Simply put, the fear in this and other white ethnic wards of the city is that Washington's election would cause a redistribution of power and resources. White neighborhoods would suffer.

A vote for Epton is seen as a vote for the status quo, a vote against black militancy, black encroachment into the neighborhood, scattered-site public housing and blacks getting jobs now held by whites.

Washington's conviction on income tax charges, his suspension from the bar and almost daily new reports here about his failure to pay one bill or another are other sore points in white working-class neighborhoods.

"I'm laid off quite a bit, but I still pay my bills," Vitek said. "Here he's making big money as a congressman, and he doesn't pay his bills. How can you elect a guy who doesn't pay his taxes or bills? "

Benny Agin said he's voting for Epton. "Not because of his color or because I'm Jewish. I just don't want an ex-convict to be head of the city. If you or I ever did anything like he did, we'd still be in jail."

The 47th Ward is an area in transition, fighting a shifting population, decaying industrial base and deteriorating school system. Its tidy, wood-frame row houses and red-brick apartment buildings, most built before World War I, show their age.

Many of the younger, better-educated residents have moved to the suburbs. They have been replaced by Hispanics, Orientals and older, ethnic whites fleeing the core of the city to escape blacks.

They don't want to move again; they want to preserve the neighborhood they have.

"I don't have the feeling Harold Washington understands where I'm coming from," Victoria Khamis, president of Upgrave, a community group in the Ravenwood neighborhood, said over lunch at the Zephyr Restaurant. "I just want to keep my neighborhood clean, my lawn mowed and my street safe. And I don't want to have to apologize for that."

"There's a feeling of loss and abandonment," she added. "We're not afraid of Harold Washington. We're afraid of 'tear down.' "

She paused, then added in an almost pleading voice: "Try not to make us out as racists. We're just people. When I cut, I bleed, too."

The Democratic Party is seen as a force for stability and self-preservation in the ward. There are few places in America where politics is played with such viciousness as in the 47th Ward; few places where the influence of a political party is so pervasive.

The ward party boss is Edmund J. Kelly. He is also superintendent of the Cook County Park District, which gives him control over 38,000 workers, the city's second-largest patronage force. Many of them live in the 47th Ward.

Kelly's organization sponsors sports teams for children, senior citizens' clubs for the elderly. It supplies "Kelly cans," free black garbage cans with Kelly's name printed on them in red, to loyal Democratic voters.

Kelly's precinct captains own snow blowers to clear off the sidewalks of loyal supporters during the winter. They are also called on to fix parking tickets, obtain building permits and liquor licenses, lower tax assessments and arrange city jobs.

On election day, the organization supplies 10 or 12 city jobholders to work each of the ward's 50 precincts, and $1,000 per precinct for "workers," according to former Republican alderman John Hoellen, who describes the organization as "corrupt" and "very patronage-oriented."

Hoellen was the only Republican on the Chicago City Council before being beaten by Kelly's candidate, Gene Schulter, in 1975.

"They didn't just beat me; they went all out to destroy me," Hoellen said. "Kelly employed the tactics of a fascist general scorching the earth. It is his theory that you have to have jobs and jobs and money and money for control."

Coincidentally, both Hoellen and Kelly are backing Epton.

In a letter to ward voters, Kelly said he is not against Washington because of race, but because Epton "will give our ward, as well as the entire city, the attention it needs without any additional tax increases. I, as well as members of our organization, have known Mr. Epton for many years, and his word is his bond. He is the best person for our ward and city, and certainly for our children's future."

What Kelly failed to mention is that Washington has proposed consolidating the park district with the rest of city government, a move that would cost Kelly his patronage jobs and clout.

Alderman Schulter, Kelly's man on the City Council, claims that Washington could have avoided many of his problems with Kelly and the rest of the ward.

"A true statesman, a true political leader would have come out here and said, 'We need each other. We need to work together.' Washington never did that."

Not surprisingly, many 47th Ward voters aren't happy with their choice Tuesday. They would rather make a positive vote for someone, rather than just voting against Washington.

Ted Krause who has never voted for a Republican in his life, reflects the views of many. He said he will vote for Epton because "he's the lesser of two evils. But he seems sort of wishy-washy, a wimp to me. Where he stands, nobody seems to know. I just hope he's honest."

Kelly held a rally for Epton Friday night at the Queen of Angels Guild Hall. It was something out of a bygone era of American politics. More than 2,500 people showed up, spilling onto the sidewalk. There was a band, free beer and huge banners proclaiming, "Democrats for Epton."

Epton could not have been more pleased. He gave Kelly a bear hug and called him a patriot for putting "loyalty to his country above loyalty to his party."

His speech was short, and it didn't mention race. But it touched all the right bases for the people of the 47th Ward. Epton promised not to raise taxes "one penny," not to "destroy or dismantle anything" and not to "go into any beautiful neighborhood and destroy anything." "The Lord will forgive you if you vote for a Republican just once," he said.