Rep. Harold Washington (D-Ill.) and Republican Bernard E. Epton took firm steps toward reconciliation as their bitter mayoral race hit the finish line today, with a huge turnout of Chicago voters predicted for Tuesday.

The moves toward reconciliation, accumulating all day, climaxed tonight in an event as bizarre as the entire campaign--an unscheduled 20-minute television debate between the estranged rivals that struck notes of the front-page journalism for which this city is famous.

The two men hadn't met since the campaign's one formal debate three weeks ago. On Sunday Epton had refused even to sit in the same TV studio as Washington. But late today Epton agreed to do two live television interviews during a stop at his downtown campaign headquarters. The first was with WLS-TV, the local ABC outlet, with Washington in the station's new studio.

Epton agreed to say hello to Washington on the air, but before he knew it the two men were engaged in a combination love feast and debate, with Washington scoring point after point on the split-screen broadcast.

Before it was over, Epton conceded that Washington was correct on several critical campaign issues, and even agreed to pay for a unity prayer breakfast on Wednesday that Washington had proposed earlier.

"Under no circumstances will either Harold or I stand for a divided city," said Epton, who has viciously attacked Washington's integrity for weeks. "The sun will rise tomorrow; hopefully, the White Sox will win; and hopefully after the election Harold and I will work together."

Earlier today Epton accused his opponent of being a "slumlord" who didn't pay his bills, and Washington denounced Democratic defectors to Epton as motivated by "greed and avarice."

The race, which is regarded as Chicago's most divisive of this century, has captured world and national attention, polarized the city on racial lines and paralyzed its establishment.

Election officials say that as many as 1.3 million ballots will be cast Tuesday, which would make it the biggest municipal turnout in 36 years. The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. CST.

Washington's campaign officials anticipate that he will get 90 percent or more of a record turnout by Chicago's 640,000 blacks. Epton's chances rest heavily on massive defections by ethnic whites in the southwest and northwest wards who seldom back a GOP candidate for anything.

With a razor-thin lead in the polls, Washington today raced through a full schedule of appearances. Epton, who made only a few routine appearances, hopes to pull an upset in this heavily Democratic city, which hasn't elected a Republican as mayor in 52 years.

Polls by the Chicago Sun-Times and other local media in the closing days of the campaign generally give Washington about 52 percent of the vote and Epton 38 percent, with about 10 percent undecided. However, the undecided vote appears to be high among voters on the north side, where Washington must do well to win.

Earlier today, Epton taped a five-minute radio address asking voters to "put aside race and religion" at the polls. He pledged to "seek actively to bridge the gap between people of different races, religion and cultural values," building an administration "without regard to race, religion or political affiliation."

But he also hammered at Washington's failure to pay bills and file tax returns and at other legal problems.

"Those are not lies," Epton said. "They are documented evidence of a long and disturbing pattern of behavior . . . that raises serious questions about what kind of mayor Harold Washington would be."

At a final news conference this afternoon, Washington continued his harsh denunciations of Democratic committeemen who defected and supported Epton as being driven by "crass greed, avarice and power." Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb's office was mapping final plans for a task force of federal prosecutors, marshals and agents to guard against vote fraud. A similar operation during the primary election day handled more than 500 complaints, and both the Washington and Epton campaigns plan similar operations in each of the city's 2,954 precincts.

But veteran political analyst Don Rose pointed out that "neither candidate controls enough of the machine to achieve massive fraud."

In the TV interviews tonight, Epton said that both he and Washington had made some regrettable remarks during the heated campaign, and added that he thought it was time for both men to persuade "some of our more obstinate followers" to cool tensions in the city and work together.

"We both have love for the city which surmounts our differences," he added.

"I appreciate that, but I sure wish that you'd said it sooner," Washington replied.

The debate continued for another 15 minutes as a crew from the rival CBS affiliate, WBBM-TV, which was standing by for its promised live interview with Epton, grew frantic as it realized that WLS-TV had scored the scoop of the campaign.