President Carter told his fellow Democrats tonight they are deluding themselves if they think "progressive" government that seeks to help the poor can continue without first bringing inflation under control.

In remarks delivered to the Democratic midterm conference here, the president also appealed for help next year in winning Senate approval of a new strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) with the Soviet Union.

Carter thus took his case for his two major goals next year directly to the largest gathering of Democrats since the 1976 convention that nominated him.

With the White House apparently firmly in control of the conference machinery and rules, the most likely subject for dissent here is the administration's anti-inflation program and the "very tight" budget Carter has promised for next year, which has already provoked protests from some liberal Democratic groups.

About 100 black delegates voted today to seek a face-to-face meeting with Carter here to express their concerns about budgetary threats to domestic programs.

Behind-the-scenes talks were going on between United Auto Workers President Douglas A. Fraser, representing a group of liberal dissidents, and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, speaking for the administration, on a compromise resolution that might put the convention on record for protecting urban and unemployment aid from deep budget cuts.

Addressing the more than 1,600 delegates to the conference, the president did not dwell at length on economic austerity. Rather, he jabbed at the Republicans and recited what he said were the accomplishments of his administration and the Democratic Congress.

But when reaffirming his determination to make severe cuts in government spending, he argued that only by controlling inflation can Democrats meet the party's traditional social welfare goals.

"Inflation threatens all our gains and all our hopes for continued growth," he said. "Inflation is robbing those whom we most want to help: working families, the pensioner, the widow and the poor. It breeds a narrow politics of fear.

"It is an illusion," Carter continued, "to believe we can preserve a commitment to compassionate, progressive government if we fail to bring inflation under control."

The president added that, while "short-term sacrifices must be made," he will seek to balance them and that if he errs "it will be on the side of those who are most in need."

The reaction to the speech was polite but hardly enthusiastic. Delegates sat in silence through his anti-inflation appeal, coming to life for a sustained ovation only when he called for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and the D.C. voting rights amendment.

In a 30-minute maneuver at the beginning of tonight's session, Democratic National Chairman John C. White obtained an overwhelming standing vote to kill a move by liberal dissidents for an immediate debate on the mini-convention rules. The weight of the vote was further evidence that pro-Carter forces will be in control when policy resolutions are discussed Sunday.

Carter made his strongest appeal to the convention on SALT, an issue on which the support of liberal Democrats who may oppose parts of his domestic policy is likely to be crucial.

Calling the nuclear arms race "an unending, unwinnable, ever more costly contest," he said continuation of the nuclear competition between the United States and the Soviet Union "increases the danger that a fatal miscalculation, a tragic accident, or an act of madness could propel the world into nuclear war and wipe out life as we know it on this earth."

The president said he hopes a SALT treaty will be signed soon and, once it is, "I will depend on your help to ensure that it is ratified.

"We have no more urgent responsibility to the next generation than to act now to reduce the danger of a nuclear holocaust," he said. "When the history of our time is written, it will be said that you and I -- the American people -- met that responsibility."

Carter was accompanied to the conference by a number of high-ranking administration and White House officials. Dozens of others were already here, part of a massive administration presence that was likely to dominate the three-day gathering.

En route to Memphis aboard Air Force One, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (Mass.) told reporters that he did not expect any confrontation, here or at the 1980 nominating convention, between the president and Sen.Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the Democrat most frequently mentioned as a liberal alternative to Carter.

O'Neill predicted that in 1980 Democrats will renominate Carter and Vice President Mondale, and that they will face a Republican ticket headed by former California governor Ronald Reagan in the general election.

The issue which most sharply divides the president and Kennedy is national health insurance, the subject of one of numerous workshops to be held here Saturday. In his speech, Carter gave it only a passing reference, reaffirming his support for national health insurance but with no commitment on when it would be implemented.

The president, arguing that the government cannot afford a full health insurance program immediately, has advocated a phased-in approach depending on the health of the economy. Kennedy and other liberals support a faster approach.

The president, who arrived in Memphis in raw. damp weather, invoked a long list of what he said were Democratic accomplishments and vowed to win enactment next year of hospital cost containment legislation and a national development bank, the key element in his proposed urban policy.

Although Carter had spoken grimly Thursday about the prospect of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty negotiations dragging on beyond the Dec. 17 deadline set in the Camp David summit accords, he sounded an optimistic note on the Middle East tonight, saying he is confident a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt "will soon be signed."

Earlier in the day, in a talk to state party chairmen, Vice President Mondale called for a "comprehensive" system of public campaign financing to curb the "rapidly growing influence" of special interest groups.

He said the most disturbing aspect of the 1978 election had been the "rising dependency on massive [private] money... It is exceedingly dangerous."

"I have not seen anything like it in my life," Mondale told the chairmen. "Not just dribbles, but rivers of money... from special interest groups with no indigenous stake in that state."

He said the outside contributions were "influencing, compromising and occasionally corrupting American politics."

An administration-backed bill to extend public financing of presidential campaigns to campaigns for the House and Senate was killed in the last Congress. Mondale's remarks apparently signaled a new effort to pass the legislation in advance of the 1980 election.

In a short preview of his formal speech to the mini-convention on Sunday, Mondale said the current generation of Democrats were as clearly obligated to deal with the threat of inflation as the 1930s New Dealers were to combat the Depression.

"It will destroy, unless solved, everything we believe in," he said of inflation. But he insisted it can be dealt with in "humane" terms without sacrificing the party's traditional commitment to social programs.

The preliminaries to the formal opening of the conference also included ratification by the Democratic National Committee of the executive committee decision to require equal numbers of men and women among the 1980 convention delegates and alternates.

Although this had been a controversial issue for 10 years, the declaration went through the committee without a word of debate, as part of the formal call for the 1980 session. The White House had disclosed yesterday its acceptance of the long-sought goal of women's groups for a guarantee of 50 percent of the delegates.

The bidding for the right to play host to that convention also opened in earnest today, with a lavish reception thrown by the city of Detroit, one of a half-dozen cities seeking the convention.

The mini-convention opened as a heavy, bone-chilling rain pelted Memphis, flooding some city streets and delaying the arrival of delegates. When only 300 persons showed up for a fund-raising gala expected to draw thousands Thursday night, convention organizers blamed it on the weather.

But the truth is that the midterm conference has generated little real excitement. An undercurrent of frustration with the restrictive agenda, and a puzzlement over the purpose of the whole affair, ran throught most of the caucuses leading up to tonight's opening session.

The phrase "meaningless Memphis" became so widespread that party chairman John C. White went to lengths to deny that Memphis was meaningless. But this only seemed to call greater attention to it.

"People who say that... don't understand the Democratic Party or this Democratic administration," White declared. "This is an historic opportunity for a direct dialogue between the party and the administration. No president but Jimmy Carter ever dared think of it."

At a three-hour closed meeting where about 100 black delegates voted to seek a meeting here with Carter, Rep. John Conyers (Mich.) was heard to say that Carter's antiinflation policies "will flatly result in his defeat in 1980."

"He owes the presidency and he always has," Conyers said. "If you like your president and want to keep him, you,d better join with me in knocking some sense into his head about a program of full employment, housing and national health insurance."