Ronald Reagan said today that President Carter "owes the country an apology" for suggesting that Reagan's election would divide the nation on racial, religious and regional lines.

The Republican presidential nominee said Carter's comments at a Monday night Democratic rally in Chicago indicated that the president "is reaching a point of hysteria that is hard to understand. . . . I think he is a badly misinformed and prejudiced man."

Before beginning a swing through the key states of Ohio and West Virginia, in which he hammered away at Carter's economic record, Reagan answered reporters' questions about the president's Chicago comment.

In expounding on the theme that the 1980 election is particularly crucial, Carter said the voters will "determine whether or not this America will be unified or, if I lose the election, whether Americans might be separated, black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South, rural from urban. . . ."

Reagan said this morning: "I can't be angry. I'm saddened that anyone . . . who has had that position [of president] could intimate such a thing. I'm not asking for an apology from him. I know who I have to account to for my actions. But I think he owes the country an apology."

In a later television interview, Reagan said that when he used the word "prejudiced," to describe Carter he meant only that Carter was "prejudiced about me. . . He has absolutely no evidence to substantiate such terrible claims as he has made. . . . All my life has been dedicated to the reverse."

Reagan added that he thought perhaps Carter was "prejudiced against me because I'm running for president."

In Washington, Robert S. Strauss, Carter campaign chairman, said, "Once again, Gov. Reagan has taken exception to the languaged used by President Carter rather than address the specific issues which have been raised. This should be a campaign of issues. We're going to try to see that it becomes one."

Reagan spent the day assailing Carter's economic policies on a tour that carried him from a Polish neighborhood in Philadelphia to a prosperous Bucks County suburban shopping mall to the hard-hit coal country of southeastern Ohio.

In a midday talk to several hundred shoppers here, Reagan asserted that, contrary to the claims of Carter campaign brochures, average weekly earnings in non-inflated dollars have declined 8.5 percent since Carter became president and the typical family's real income "has reached a 10-year low."

Earlier, in a Catholic church hall in a blue-collar neighborhood of North Philadelphia, Reagan told a meeting sponsored by the Polish-American League of Pennsylvania that inflation in the Carter years "has robbed 32 cents from every dollar that you managed to save."

Recent polls have shown Reagan running narrowly ahead of Carter in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, two big industrial states that were in the Democratic column in 1976. Local Republican officials talked with increasing confidence today of carrying them, but Reagan took pains to knock down some of the arguments Carter is using in an effort to swing voters back in his direction.

At the Polish church hall, he denied accusations that his election would endanger the Social Security system or increase the risk of nuclear war. Here at the suburban mall, he paused to rebut new Carter TV commercials that show Californians criticizing Reagan's record as governor.

"I haven't seen them," Reagan quipped, "but I'm told they bear the same resemblance to the truth as Mr. Carter's record does to competency."

In Steubenville this evening, Reagan ran into a large group of union and pro-ERA hecklers when he brought his campaign to a heavily Democratic area hard-hit by steel industry layoffs.

The crowd of about 1,200 people was heavily dotted with signs from steelworker union members supporting Carter and deriding Reagan. A steelworker union president quit the "Save Our Steel" committee over its invitation to Reagan.

The candidate responded to the heckling by saying, "I'm glad so many Democrats are here. . . I'm so happy there are people here who are hearing the truth for the first time."