Special-interest groups are adding their own messages for and against candidates in the final days of the political campaigns, although there seem to be fewer such "independent expenditures" than in prior years.

A review of reports filed at the Federal Election Commission showed that the National Abortion Rights Action League and the American Academy of Ophthalmologists are making their first independent expenditures ever in congressional races.

NARAL has spent more than $230,000 opposing Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), nearly $54,000 against Rep. Denny Smith (R-Ore.) and another $100,000 for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The eye doctors spent more than $81,000 in research and a television buy for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

But political action committees (PACs) representing import car dealers, doctors and several other groups that spent more than $7 million combined in 1988 have cut back on their expenditures for a variety of reasons.

PACs are limited to making $5,000 maximum donations directly to candidates, but they can make unlimited expenditures for or against a candidate, as long as those expenditures are not controlled or directed by the campaign. The practice became controversial a decade ago after the National Conservative PAC ran negative television ads against several incumbent Democrats. In 1988, the import auto dealers were the target of criticism when they spent more than $1.3 million on television commercials late in three key Senate races.

The import auto dealers became an issue again this year when they spent more than $350,000 to produce and buy television ads criticizing New Hampshire Democratic Senate candidate John A. Durkin. Durkin responded by saying, "These are the same Japs that staged a sneak attack on Dec. 7 {Pearl Harbor} and now are trying to stage a sneak attack on our election process in New Hampshire on Nov. 6."

Late last week, the auto dealers spent $270,000 for television spots in Minnesota supporting Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R). Frank Glacken, executive director of AutoPAC, said his group's total independent expenditures would be about $750,000 this year, about half of the 1988 total.

He said he is spending less because his PAC is raising less from dealers hurt by slumping auto sales. In addition, the electorate has been volatile, making it difficult to pick races where outside spending will help rather than harm the group's favored candidate, Glacken said.

The American Medical Association PAC, which made $837,000 in independent expenditures in 1988, has spent $90,000 this cycle, all for Senate candidate Rep. Patricia F. Saiki (R-Hawaii).

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare PAC, listed as making more than $1.1 million in independent expenditures in 1988, will spend less than $400,000 this year, all on the radio, according to PAC director Max Richtman. He said the group decided radio is a cost-effective way to help the seven Senate and 20 House candidates the PAC is supporting.

Doug Thompson of the National Association of Realtors PAC said he thinks some groups shied from independent spending this year because of criticism from Congress and campaign finance reform bills that tried to restrict such spending. The real estate agents spent $1.3 million two years ago and could be near that figure again, he said.

The real estate agents have spent more than $200,000 supporting Rep. Hank Brown (R-Colo.), more than $125,000 for Rep. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) and about $108,000 for Rep. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), all running for open Senate seats, and $158,000 for Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.). In addition, it has spent nearly $100,000 each for four House incumbents -- Reps. Ben Jones (D-Ga.), Peter Hoagland (D-Neb.), Jack Buechner (R-Mo.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)

The National Abortion Rights Action League is taking an unusual approach in its independent spending, spending much of the money directly from its own treasury rather than from its PAC. A Supreme Court ruling in a right-to-life case in 1986 said an ideological group could make such expenditures as long as it does not receive union or corporate contributions.

Spokeswoman Loretta Ucelli said NARAL qualifies for the exemption and is spending from its own budget to aid candidates favoring abortion rights in House and Senate races, while using PAC dollars in governors' races in Florida, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio.

She noted that NARAL's budget has more than doubled since the Supreme Court's Webster decision last year, which expanded state governments' authority over abortion and activated the abortion-rights community. The group spent about $400,000 in the Virginia governor's race and more than $250,000 more in New Jersey last year for the abortion-rights candidates.

Michael A. Roberts of the ophthalmologists' PAC said his group decided to run television commercials supporting Baucus because of his support for Medicare and rural hospitals. Baucus is a member of the tax-writing subcommittee on Medicare. Eye doctors bill Medicare about $2 billion a year for cataract surgery and have been the target of congressional cost-cutting measures.