Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan opened his bid for labor backing today by telling an Ohio Teamster audience that President Carter has created "a severe depression" that has brought more suffering to workers and their families than anything since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"Their lives have been shattered by a new depression -- the Carter depression," Reagan told some 400 delegates to the Ohio Teamster Conference. "I am here to tell you that the working people cannot afford four more years of Jimmy Carter."

The Reagan speech -- the main event in a leisurely 38-hour stay in Columbus -- was designed as the opening gun in a two-fold campaign assault on the blue-collar vote and the Great Lakes states.

But, like last week's venture into national defense and foreign policy, it was marred by controversies about Reagan's language and meaning.

After a late-night meeting with Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes, the text of the speech already distributed to reporters was substantially rewritten -- with stronger language than the original had contained.

Reagan's characterization of the current economic condition as a "severe depression" echoed Rhodes' vocabulary, but was rejected by his own top economic adviser, Alan Greenspan, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Greenspan, who said he did not participate in the redrafting even though he was along o the trip, told reporters, "We are in one of the major economic contractions of the past 50 years." But when asked if he would call this a "severe depression," he said, "No, I wouldn't describe it as such."

Reagan then issued a formal statement saying, "As far as I am concerned, the line between recession and depression cannot be measured in the strict economists' terms but must be measured in human terms. When our working people -- including those who are unemployed -- must endure the worst misery since the 1930s, then I think we ought to recognize that they consider it a depression. . . ."

However, the present 8.2 percent unemployment rate is well below the 25 percent level of the Great Depression and also below the 9 percent peak of the 1975 recession when President Ford was in office.

Reagan was introduced to the Teamsters gathering by Rhodes, who has courted and won union support in his years as governor of Ohio. The GOP nominee identified himself at the outset as "the first union president ever to be a candidate for president of the United States." In his Hollywood days, he served six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

He also identified himself as a strong advocate of "collective bargaining, free of arbitrary government intervention or so-called voluntary guidelines." He made no reference to the Republican platform's support of state "right-to-work" laws, barring union membership as a condition of employment.

Reagan received a friendly, if not tumultuous reception from the 400 delegates. His spokesman, Lyn Nofziger, said that the candidate had "hopes" of receiving a later endorsement from the national Teamsters union, an independent organization outside the AFL-CIO. A telegram from Teamsters President Frank Fitzsimmons said he was "looking forward to continued discussions" with Reagan before the union's endorsement decision.

The Teamsters endorsed Richard Nixon in 1972, but there were some eyebrows raised among Ohio politicians about the identity of Reagan's hosts at the speech and a private luncheon for 22 Teamster and other union officials.

He was escorted through the sessions by William and Jackie Presser, a father-son combination who run the Ohio Conference of Teamsters.

William Presser has been convicted of destroying union records, obstruction of justice and accepting illegal payments from employers. He was forced to resign as an international vice president of the union several years ago. His son Jackie has never been charged with or convicted of a crime, but he is currently under investigation for his role in the Central States Pension Fund scandal. Court testimony has linked him to meetings with organized crime figures.

Another luncheon guest was Roy Williams of the Central Conference of Teamsters. On Tuesday, he took the Fifth Amendment before the Senate permanent investigations subcommittee, which is investigating the Central States Pension Fund. He and Jackie Presser are considered the top contenders to succeed Fitzsimmons, who is gravely ill with cancer.

Another person listed as attending the luncheon was Adrian Short Jr. of Cleveland, who was indicted in March on 25 counts of conspiring to embezzle union funds for travel, lodging and entertainment.

Ed Mees, Reagan's executive assistant, told reporters, "We didn't try to screen anybody . . . they are all duly elected representatives of their unions." As for the Pressers, he said the invitation to Reagan had come from Jackie Presser, "and we're not about to tell a fellow he can't invite his father to lunch."

The Reagan speech offered no additions to his own economic prescription -- keyed to an across-the-board stimulative tax cut -- but it forecast the line of attack he will use on the Carter record in the opening phase of the campaign.

Reagan aides told reporters that in the first two weeks of September, he will concentrate on the Great Lakes states and their blue-collar voters, because Reagan polls show "he has the best chance of any Republican in years of cracking the labor vote and winning all of those states" from Pennsylvania west to Wisconsin.

The Republican governors of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin came here tonight for a private dinner with Reagan to outline that drive.

Afterward, they said they had urged Reagan not to get bogged down in terminology or discussion of "irrelevant" issues, but to pin the blame for the country's economic condition squarely on Carter.

Gov. Lee S. Dreyfus of Wisconsin expressed the consensus of the group when he said, "The first thing is to nail down whose depression this is. The last two weeks he's gotten off on other issues, and no one in Milwaukee cares if it's two Chinas, three Chinas or four Chinas." n

The former California governor told the Teamster audience that Carter "has demonstrated time and again that he is insensitive to the problems of working people."

Quoting Carter's statement in the 1976 campaign that "we simply cannot check inflation by keeping people out of work," Reagan charged that "in panic over an inflation running at 18 percent in the first quarter of 1980 [Carter] presided over economic policies which threw almost 2 million working Americans out on the streets in two months."

The Republican challenger also quoted Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's address to the Democratic National Convention as evidence that "misery, despair and deprivation" characterize America today -- and then noted ironically that "Jimmy Carter said it was one of the greatest speeches he had ever heard."

As for Carter's contention that Reagan's proposed tax cut, along with his calls for more defense spending and a balanced budget, would leave no room to meet the normal costs of government, Reagan scoffed:

"That analysis was produced by the same economists who have done for the U.S. economy what Mrs. O'Leary's cow did for Chicago."

In the earlier version of the speech, the comparison was made to what the "Hooker Chemical Co. did for the Love Canal," but aides said that metaphor was judged "inappropriate."

In the overnight editing process, Reagan dropped almost all of the prepared references to national defense and international relations in order to concentrate on the economic message.

But he did retain a passage in which he said that "in recent days, thousands of heroic Polish workers have shown the world that wherever there is a desire for free labor unions, there is also a yearning for political and economic freedom. Those of us who know what it is to belong to a union have a special bond with the workers of Poland."