The late Richard J. Daley was mayor of Chicago for 21 years, from 1955 to 1976. The numbers were transposed yesterday.

For the establishment of this proud city--the influential business and church leaders and the most powerful media voices--the mayoral campaign that ends today has been the most searing test in their memory.

Its performance will be judged Wednesday, not on whether Rep. Harold Washington (D-Ill.) or Republican Bernard E. Epton wins, but whether the city comes through its most divisive campaign in this century ready to accept the leadership of either its first black mayor ever or its first Republican mayor in 52 years.

Some home-town critics say the establishment has flunked the test.

In an article in today's issue of Crain's Chicago Business, Thomas S. Roeser, president of the City Club of Chicago, said the "blue chips of Chicago have, by and large, sacrificed their influence" because they have been "so politically timid."

Louis Masotti, a Northwestern University urbanologist and confidant of leading politicians of both parties, said, "A lot of people who should have spoken up have chosen to be out of town." Masotti also said he was "appalled" by the press and television coverage of the campaign, saying that both have done "a terrible job of getting beyond the question of race and hate."

No one is immune to the criticism--not even Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, who in one sermon and two written statements urged his parishioners to rise above the racism he said "is a factor in the campaign," but counseled his priests not to "enter into partisan politics" in a "moment . . . marked by a great deal of tension and emotion."

But businessmen, editors and clergymen of all faiths say they have never encountered anything like the swirl of emotions surrounding this election. With many blacks bitterly resentful of what they regard as racist attacks on Washington, and many whites fearful of what they think would be a black takeover of the city, the traditional leaders have been squirming.

In the last few weeks many of the key establishment figures have thrown their support to Washington.

He has the editorial endorsement of both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, and the block-long dais of his half-million-dollar "unity dinner" fund-raiser two weeks ago was dotted with big names from the legal and business community, Jewish and Protestant clergymen and a liberal priest whom Bernardin has called back to Chicago from unofficial exile at Notre Dame to become the diocesan specialist on community relations.

Privately, many of the lawyers and businessmen say they think there is more chance of building a broad-based coalition to govern the city around the flamboyant Washington than there would be around Epton, a shy, introverted lawyer who at times has seemed overwhelmed by the emotions of this race.

But Edwin (Bill) Berry, the longtime head of the Chicago Urban League who persuaded several prominent businessmen and lawyers to join him on Washington's transition planning team, told the unity dinner he was "saddened" by the failure of his earlier efforts to enlist that kind of support.

Berry has told friends he felt that "all my years of work had been for nought," when he was rebuffed by white establishment leaders in seeking support for Washington during the February Democratic primary.

At that time, both newspapers supported Cook County State's Attorney Richard M. Daley. Businessmen poured millions into Daley's campaign and even more into the coffers of incumbent Democratic Mayor Jane M. Byrne.

As Masotti and others point out, during the 12 years that Daley's father, Richard J. Daley, was mayor, ending in 1976, everyone in the city took cues from him and counted on the Democratic organization to hold the city together. There were times of violence--during the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, civil rights marches and the 1968 Democratic National Convention--but by and large Daley kept things running.

But the Democratic organization shattered after Daley's death. Whoever wins Tuesday will be the third mayor in less than seven years. The political establishment is in shambles. And it is a time of rapid transition for other leadership elites as well.

The cardinal, the editor of the Tribune and the heads of the city's largest bank and its largest savings and loan association have all come to their posts within the last two years.

"I think it might have been different if they had had deeper roots and more self-confidence," Masotti said.

But Roeser, who is a vice president of Quaker Oats, takes a harsher view of the business leadership. Arguing that Daley's death opened the opportunity for a more creative role, Roeser said, "Shunning choice, declining activism, big business opted merely to continue to bob up and down on the nihilistic ocean."

And a clergyman involved in interracial relations remarked with some asperity that Bernardin, three prominent Protestant ministers and one of the city's leading rabbis spoke at a noontime interfaith service today commemorating the Holocaust without making any reference to the tensions surrounding Tuesday's election.

"With all the cameras and reporters present," this man said, "you would have thought they would have said something."

The Tribune and the Sun-Times, both of which have taken flak from white readers for their endorsements of Washington, made a point of reaffirming their support yesterday.

Tribune editor James D. Squires and Sun-Times editor Ralph Otwell said the election was, in Otwell's words, "tougher than anything we've had to cover."

Squires said he thought the charge of hyping the race issue is "unfair, as far as both papers are concerned. If anything, we've tried to submerge the race issue and focus on the real issues, but we've been spectacularly unsuccessful in getting the candidates to talk about anything else since the primary."

Today both candidates suggested unity meetings on Wednesday, and other efforts were under way to keep emotions from boiling over in the aftermath of what is expected to be a very close vote.

School Superintendent Ruth Love asked teachers and student council presidents to emphasize the values of "cultural pluralism." And a variety of business, community and religious groups issued pleas for tolerance and understanding in messages to their membership.