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Shock waves from Gov. Jim Martin's decision not to seek election to any future office are still reverberating around the state. People were surprised both by the governor's announcement and by the unorthodox manner in which he made it - rising out of his sick bed to attack Attorney General Lacy Thornburg and unfair treatment in the press, then delivering a long letter to the News & Observer of Raleigh in which he said politics had become ``too brutal for me.'

One veteran politician who says he was as surprised as anyone to learn of Martin's decision is Rep. Howard Coble of Greensboro. Coble, who says he has not yet talked to the governor about his decision, is a longtime Martin fan. Both come from the more moderate wing of the state GOP, and their political trajectories have crossed. Coble moved from the state legislature, where he was a member of the House, to Congress. Martin moved from Congress, where he served the Charlotte-based 9th District, to Raleigh.In a telephone interview last week, Coble said that, like other state Republican insiders, he had heard that Jim Martin and his wife, Dottie, were not particularly keen on returning to Washington. Martin had been widely mentioned as a candidate for Senate against Sen. Terry Sanford, who plans to run for re-election in 1992.

But Coble hadn't expected to learn of Martin's decision so soon, or so definitively. ``I don't mean to second-guess the governor,' Coble said, ``because he has always been in control.' But this time, Coble said, Martin startled him. ``I would not have done it that way,' Coble said. ``The better way to resolve that is to go home and talk to your wife, or your chief of staff first.' Yet it is apparent now that Martin had discussed his decision with his wife; in his letter to Claude Sitton, editorial director of the News & Observer, Martin said his decision not to run again was his Christmas present to his wife.

Coble admits that the stresses and strains of serving as governor could get to a person. As a congressman some distance away from his constituency, and as only one of 435 members of the House, Coble doesn't get the same day-to-day scrutiny that a governor does. Still, Coble thinks talk of too much stress on today's politicians is overdone.

``The strain in public life is there,' he said. ``But it's on everybody. The guy in the cotton mill works hard. The truck driver and the physician work hard. The difference is that we live in a fishbowl,' he continued. ``We in public life are in the light. We are pretty much under constant examination.'

Coble cited examples of a number of members of Congress who have come under investigation, both ethical and criminal, during his time in Washington. He isn't convinced some of those investigations would have occurred had the officials not been in the limelight.

Coble was sanguine about his treatment by the press. He said he has always been treated fairly by the newspapers in this district, but that some politicians confuse fairness with preferential treatment, to which they are not entitled. He did say, in response to Martin's broadside against the N&O, that that newspaper's stated editorial predilection for Democrats and the Democratic Party ``could weigh heavily on a guy's mind,' if you happened to be a Republican in the Governor's Mansion.

The bizarre manner in which Martin announced his decision has obscured an underlying question: What's so bad about a successful politician deciding to withdraw from the next campaign? In recent decades, anyway, we have come to expect elected officials to stay in office indefinitely, and to move up the political ladder, as Coble and Martin have done.

But a good case can be made that politicians better serve the people when they put self-imposed limits on that service. After a period in private life, some return to political life refreshed and better able to serve. Others continue to make a contribution from the sidelines. Meanwhile, new political talent is allowed to come forward and mature.

This state has seen more than its share of examples. Among Democrats, Terry Sanford is a classic case. A former governor, he served as president of Duke University before returning to political life after a brief ``retirement.' Former Gov. Bob Scott now leads the state's community college system. And former Gov. Jim Hunt, who lost his 1984 Senate bid, stays active. There are rumors he is considering another run for governor in 1992.

Speaking of runs for governor, a Republican politician who has gotten in and out of politics is Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, a former one-term congressman. He is widely expected to seek the governor's office in 1992. Former GOP Gov. Jim Holshouser remains active, too, as a member of the UNC Board of Governors and sometime legislative lobbyist.

Howard Coble is one politician who believes members of Congress can stick around too long. He is sponsoring a measure that would put limits on the number of terms members of the House and Senate can serve. Obviously, though, he's not ready to call it quits, since he is running for a fourth term this year. And his name has already popped up in state GOP circles as a leading replacement for Martin in the 1992 Senate race.

``In all candor,' Coble told me, ``that does not trip my trigger. But I'm not ruling it out conclusively. I haven't had time to give it much thought.' If he had his druthers, Coble said, he'd rather try for the governorship someday than for a six-year stint in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Jim Martin can test the proposition that a politician who announces he isn't going to run for higher office can devote the remainder of his term in office to his real agenda, without being accused that he's trying to position himself for the next contest. And Republicans around the state can dream wistfully about what might have been.

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