"I think I know how to count," Rep. Martin O. Sabo (Minn.) told his Democratic colleagues last week as he bowed out of the race to become the next majority whip in the House.

Sabo's decision, announced in a letter to colleagues, reduced to four the number of active candidates in the race for the whip's job, which is considered the first major rung on the ladder leading to the position of speaker of the House. The other candidates are Reps. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and widely viewed as the front-runner, and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), W.G. (Bill) Hefner (D-N.C.) and William V. (Bill) Alexander Jr. (D-Ark.).

Sabo cited two reasons for his decision: his appointment last week to the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, which he said would increase the demands on his time, and his counting of votes in the Democratic Caucus. "At this point, my chances of winning the majority whip position are remote," he said.

The scramble for the whip's job was set off by the decision of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) to retire at the end of this year. Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) is expected to succeed O'Neill, with Majority Whip Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) moving up to majority leader.