CHICAGO -- The word "disrespect" is heard a lot these days in this city's black neighborhoods and it spells potentially big trouble for the Democrats.

Because state Attorney General Neil F. Hartigan (D) showed "disrespect" for the late Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, by supporting a rival Irish politician running on a third-party ticket in 1987, many of Washington's key supporters are calling for Hartigan's defeat in this year's gubernatorial race.

Because the local Democratic organization refused to support a veteran black politician who was in line to run for president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, the "Harold Washington Party" was formed and has fielded an all-black slate for county offices to protest that "disrespect."

Barred from the ballot last month by a partisan Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court, the Harold Washington slate regained its ballot position Thursday by order of the U.S. Supreme Court and now looms as a major threat to the straight-ticket voting on which Hartigan and other Democrats depend.

All this creates huge problems for people like Bobby Rush, the onetime Black Panther leader who is now the 2nd Ward alderman here as well as the Democratic committeeman and vice-chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. At a meeting the other night for 35 of his precinct captains, Rush waved his arm in a circle big enough to include the blocks of high-rises surrounding his South Side headquarters and declared:

"There is confusion out there. Black voters -- your voters -- don't know what to believe. . . . You've got to be the truth squad, the clarity squad, and blow all this bull away, so they will be motivated to come out and vote for Neil Hartigan for governor. This is a precinct captains' election now. It's in your hands."

Rush was not exaggerating. In the final week of the 1990 Illinois gubernatorial campaign, as Democrats struggle to regain the job Republican James R. Thompson has held for 14 years, it has begun to dawn on them that their sophisticated media and issues strategy that is aimed at swing voters in the Republican suburbs may be undercut by disaffection in the precincts of their most loyal minority-group supporters.

Secretary of State Jim Edgar, the Republican nominee against Hartigan, has mounted an unusually aggressive effort to make inroads in the black and Hispanic communities, with some signs of success. A mid-October poll taken for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed Hartigan with only a 2 to 1 lead over Edgar among blacks, far less than the normal margin for a Democrat.

Hartigan must be concerned about scenes like this: Lu Palmer, a veteran black activist, standing on a chilly Chicago Transit Authority platform on 95th Street the other evening handing out sheets explaining why his Black Independent Political Organization (BIPO) has made Edgar its first-ever top-of-the-ticket Republican endorsee. "Right on, brother," many of the homeward-bound voters responded to Palmer.

That is why Hartigan campaigned Friday in Chicago and Peoria with the nation's first elected black governor, Virginia's L. Douglas Wilder (D), and why he has scheduled rallies Saturday in Altgeld Gardens and Robert Taylor Homes, two huge public housing projects, with former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

What is true of the black community is also true in the fast-growing Hispanic areas of Chicago. Edgar, who became a familiar figure in Hispanic neighborhoods through the library and literacy programs his office runs, has opened two campaign headquarters in Hispanic wards and is spending more heavily than Hartigan for commercials on Spanish-language radio stations.

The stakes for blacks and Hispanics go beyond this November's election. Much of the battling, especially among black political factions, is a prelude to next year's Chicago mayoral contest, in which incumbent Richard M. Daley (D) could face a black challenger.

In addition, Illinois is expected to lose two of its 22 House seats in next year's reapportionment. The delegation now includes three black lawmakers, and Hispanics assert that their growing numbers will entitle them to a district in 1992. Elected officials in the black and Hispanic communities -- all of them Democrats -- have formed a "three plus one" coalition and say the map can more easily be drawn to accommodate their desires if the Democratic legislature does not confront a Gov. Edgar determined to protect suburban and downstate Republican incumbents. But Edgar aides argue that minorities will do better with a Republican remap than one in which the Democratic organization draws the lines to save such white ethnic congressional powerhouses as Reps. Dan Rostenkowski, Frank Annunzio and Marty Russo.

For now, however, the focus is on Hartigan, who is struggling with the dilemma that confronts any Democrat running for the presidency or a big-state governorship: how to get a healthy share of the middle-class white vote while retaining overwhelming majorities in minority communities. Hartigan early on decided to try to break into the Republican suburbs by opposing extension of the temporary 20 percent state income tax surtax, a measure Edgar says he would make permanent to fund schools and aid local governments.

Even minority legislators who support Hartigan tend to disagree with his tax stand, fearing it will jeopardize efforts to improve Chicago schools or require funds to be shifted from social service programs important to their constituents.

But a more emotional barrier for Hartigan stems from his 1987 decision to back County Assessor Thomas Hynes's ill-fated third-party candidacy against Washington. Nancy Jefferson, a black activist as influential on the West Side as Palmer is on the South Side, cites that decision in a radio ad saying, "Their candidate for governor disrespected us when he wouldn't support Harold Washington, and he continues to disrespect us."

When Hynes abandoned his candidacy a few days before the election, Hartigan shifted his support to Washington, and in this campaign he has played a videotape of a news conference, just a few days before Washington's death, in which the late mayor offered Hartigan his support for governor. As Rush told his precinct captains, "Neil Hartigan may not have endorsed Harold Washington until the end, but Jim Thompson never endorsed him and neither did Jim Edgar."

Democratic ads on black radio stations attack Edgar as Thompson's "handpicked candidate" and lambaste Thompson's "14 years of blatantly ignoring the needs of the African-American community." Rose Jennings, the top black in the Edgar campaign, concedes that Thompson's record "is a big problem in the black community." So is President Bush's veto this week of the Civil Rights Act of 1990, she said, quickly adding that Edgar wrote Bush in August asking him to sign the bill.

A key threat to Hartigan comes from the focus in these closing days on the Harold Washington Party. The party was formed in 1989 as a vehicle for a black alderman who unsuccessfully tried to block Daley's election. It was revived last summer by retired judge R. Eugene Pincham, who lost a spirited race in the April Democratic primary for Cook County Board president to attorney Richard Phelan, the special prosecutor who investigated former House speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.).

Dressed in a monogramed, silk dressing gown, Pincham, who is recovering from a recent appendectomy, grew more and more vehement as he ran through a list of Irish-American Democratic politicians, including Daley, Hartigan, Hynes, Phelan, powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and several others on the Democratic ticket. "They take the votes from us," he said in an interview, "and they take the rewards for themselves."

That is a message that resonates in the black community, especially among younger voters, despite Democratic efforts to publicize evidence that Republicans have furnished behind-the-scenes help to the Harold Washington slate. Joseph E. Gardner, the Metropolitan Water District commissioner who is a key black strategist for Hartigan, said, "Obviously the Republicans gain from the Harold Washington Party" being on the ballot, "but there are a lot of hard-working, well-motivated people there who do not have a Republican agenda. They're just frustrated with the local Democratic Party."

Gardner and others are trying to emphasize that in targeting Hartigan for defeat and creating a new focus for black political energy, the Harold Washington Party is also jeopardizing the chances of electing the first black state Supreme Court justice and attorney general on the Democratic ticket. Bobby Rush told his captains that the Washington slate, which has little prospect of electing any of its candidates, is encouraging blacks to "eat the wrapper and throw away the candy bar."

But with the Chicago news media trumpeting the Washington Party's triumph over the organization in the Supreme Court, the excitement and momentum is clearly with the all-black slate. Robert Starke, a black activist and political science professor, said, "This election will produce absolute evidence that straight-ticket voting in the African-American community is dead."

So too is the unity Chicago black leaders briefly achieved during Harold Washington's time. Lamenting that fact, Rep. Gus Savage (D-Ill.) told a radio call-in show the other morning, "They got us divided over two damn white men." Echoing George Wallace, he said, "There's not a dime's worth of difference between Hartigan and Edgar."