in Washington - Remember the Contract With America? One of its most visible planks was a call for limiting the terms of federal officeholders. The GOP freshman class of 1994 loved the idea but lacked the numbers to push it through Congress. Although liberals tried to portray the effort as a misguided crusade by right-wing nuts, hard-core term limiters vowed to continue the fight. But a funny thing happened on the way to a constitutional amendment. U.S. Term Limits, the major lobbying organization on the issue, recently overhauled its strategy. To gain the organization's endorsement, candidates previously had to commit simply to vote in favor of term limits. Stung by candidates who backed off their term-limits commitment once they gained office, USTL now requires a personal pledge to serve no more than three terms in the House, regardless of whether national legislation on the issue is successful. The new tactic has actually hurt conservative candidates, according to some critics. The most outspoken of those critics has been Don Hodel, president of the Christian Coalition. Mr. Hodel says he has advocated term limits since his days in the Reagan administration cabinet, but he broke recently with USTL over its new pledge. In an April letter obtained by WORLD, Mr. Hodel told USTL president Howard Rich that the Christian Coalition would "openly reject" the pledge requirement. "We do not consider yours a responsible, effective, or rational approach," he wrote. "Your endorsement does not constitute a useful means of judging a candidate's position on the issue." The immediate source of Mr. Hodel's consternation was the Southern California congressional race to fill the vacant House seat of Democrat Howard Capps. Lois Capps, widow of the congressman who had held the office, signed the USTL pledge to limit her own service, but said publicly she would vote against a term-limits constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, Republican Tom Bordonaro, an outspoken social conservative, refused to sign the personal pledge but came out in favor of an amendment forcing everyone to play by the same rules. U.S. Term Limits and its sister organization, Americans for Limited Terms, poured $250,000 into the race to defeat Mr. Bordonaro, helping Ms. Capps to a slim victory. The following week, similar donations in an Illinois race for the U.S. House helped moderate-to-liberal Republican Judy Biggert defeat her more conservative challenger for the GOP nomination. "In terms of the tactics that U.S. Term Limits is now using, we believe that they're counterproductive," says the Christian Coalition's Arne Owens. "What they are in fact doing is helping to elect liberals to Congress who are very much interested in keeping the establishment power in place." In light of the money poured into the California and Illinois races-and in Kentucky and Idaho where left-leaning, USTL-backed candidates were not successful-Mr. Owens says, "We no longer consider U.S. Term Limits a part of the conservative movement. Nor do most conservative organizations." But Paul Jacob, USTL's executive director, says his organization never thought of itself as part of any movement. "We've never been a conservative group or a liberal group. We believe in term limits, period. The activists in this effort have been very good about not bringing other personal agenda items into the debate." Mr. Jacob finds it ironic that just a few years ago, Vic Fazio of the Democratic National Congressional Campaign Committee was calling USTL a tool of the religious right. "Now we've seen this issue play a major role in Capps beating Bordonaro, and suddenly you hear some people on the religious right saying that we're a liberal group.... It's funny, when you stay at the same position, how other people move and then think that you've moved." That's not entirely true, since USTL raised the bar to a level that requires, in effect, unilateral disarmament. But many conservatives do indeed seem to have changed their minds on term limits since the GOP took control of Congress in 1994. Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.) cruised to an easy victory last month after many family groups rallied to his defense in a tough primary. An old-school moderate with 12 terms under his belt, Mr. Goodling was challenged by Charlie Gerow, a young outsider who touted his ties to social conservatives. But those very conservatives appreciated the power that Mr. Goodling wielded as chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce-and the way he used that power to sidetrack President Clinton's plan for national testing. Despite $300,000 in anti-Goodling ads paid for by Americans for Limited Terms, the incumbent won by a 2-1 margin. With a slew of primaries yet to come, political pros are divided over whether the term-limits pledge will prove to be a deciding factor. But many conservatives have already decided that such a single-issue focus by groups like USTL has become a double-edged sword-a sword on which they hope not to fall in November.