TRAVERSE CITY, MICH., JULY 25 -- The nation's governors gathered in this lakeside resort today to assess what they have done -- and still have to do -- to improve economic opportunities and competitiveness in their states.

At the start of a three-day session featuring addresses by the Soviet ambassador and the heads of Ford and Chrysler, the governors released two reports on boosting jobs, growth and competitiveness and preventing welfare dependency.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D), chairman of the National Governors' Association, and Delaware Gov. Michael N. Castle (R), head of the task force on welfare reform, held out hope that the governors can make headway toward a compromise in meetings Sunday with the sponsors of principal pending welfare-reform bills, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Rep. Thomas J. Downey, both New York Democrats, and Charles D. Hobbs, director of the White House office of policy development.

Staff members of the governors' association said they see no softening in White House criticisms of the bill Downey reported out of the Ways and Means Committee or the newly introduced Moynihan measure, which has 27 cosponsors. But Clinton and Castle expressed optimism that welfare reform "can happen" this year.

Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D), one of three cochairmen of the competitiveness task force, introduced its report with a flourish of rhetoric.

"These are practical ideas from the people who can make them work," he said. "We're not waiting for Washington. It used to be that Washington stood tall and tried to do what was necessary . . . . Today, it seems the best thing Washington can do is stand tall and duck. The states are not ducking."

The meeting has drawn an unusually large turnout of 47 governors. Maryland's William Donald Schaefer (D) is one of the absentees.

The reports are studded with examples of pilot programs in the states, ranging from Indiana's five-year-old commitment to retrain workers in older industries that are installing new technologies and making new capital investments, to the four-year plan Mississippi launched in 1986 to bring prenatal care and birth-control services to poor, young women in its rural areas.

The reports also echo policy recommendations the governors have previously given Washington: take credible steps to balance the budget inside five years; rewrite trade laws to open access to foreign markets for American goods; reform the federal part of the welfare system.

But, in keeping with their habits in the Reagan era, the governors spent far less space in the report on their Washington "wish list" than on what they have done -- or might do -- in state capitals.

"No matter what burdens or benefits the international economy or national policies may bring to states, practical problem-solvers can do things to reduce the human loss from welfare dependency and other barriers to full development and to accelerate local economic growth," Clinton said in introducing the two reports. "It is therefore unacceptable in 1987 for any governor to sit on the sidelines and avoid tackling these issues head-on."

With the governors split almost evenly in party terms -- 26 Democrats and 24 Republicans -- the reports sidestepped either praise or censure of the Reagan record on economic and social issues.

Perhaps the most controversial recommendation -- that public and private investment be targeted into "depressed areas of our country" -- was not spelled out in detail.

While clearly envisaging an activist role for government, the reports, in Clinton's words, demonstrate "we learned the hard way that we in government cannot solve these problems alone . . . . Partnerships with the private sector . . . are essential . . . . "

Clinton, who recently took himself out of consideration as a 1988 presidential candidate, suggested in his introductory comments that "Americans are coming together" on a common approach to social issues "because we cannot maintain our standard of living or perhaps even our security if we have more incapacitated or underutilized people than our competitors have. That's why investment bankers and defense contractors should care about distressed farmers and at-risk children. We're all in this together."

Clinton argued that the new model for social policy is based on balancing rights and responsibilities, which he said is embodied in the governors' approach to welfare reform.

"The heart of our welfare reform proposal is the contract that conditions the right to benefits on the assumption of personal responsibility to pursue a path to independence, through education, training and work," he said.

"Similarly, local leaders have a right to expect the state to offer every available and affordable economic development initiative, but unless they assume responsibility for making something happen in their hometowns, the state's efforts will be to no avail.

"I believe," Clinton said, "this model could be used to address other national problems. For example, we might increase rather than decrease student loans to college students, but require the students in return . . . to assume the responsibility of spending a few hours each month teaching illiterate adults to read or doing other public service."