Up to this point, the sheer size of the GOP presidential field has actually been somewhat of an asset. It’s a positive to have anywhere from six to nine national potentially presidential figures making the case for the conservative cause to voters across the country. Granted, some of the candidates have espoused conservative principles more accurately and/or more effectively than others, but, by and large, all the GOP candidates have, at one time or another, pounded the president on jobs and the economy and reminded voters they’re generally not better off now than they were four years ago.

But now that the primaries have more or less begun, it’s a different situation. Voters have begun to express their preferences. Candidates with paltry support serve only to keep their few diehard supporters — presumably folks highly dedicated to the proposition of a one-term Obama administration — from coming around to support a different candidate. Michele Bachmann made an effective attack dog, she spoke eloquently about Obamacare and she’s clearly hard-working, but she made the right decision this morning.

Now, on to New Hampshire, which should surely eliminate at least one more …

The picture in New Hampshire is significantly different than in Iowa, but some things are the same. Just as they did as of this weekend in Iowa, polls show Mitt Romney running in front, his supposedly closest rivals fading and Rick Santorum surging somewhat. Reuters reports:

The morning after Romney’s narrow victory in Iowa’s caucus, the 7 News/Suffolk University daily tracking poll of voters showed the former governor of Massachusetts holding 43 percent support, level with his results over the last two days.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul trailed Romney by a widening margin, with 14 percent support among voters polled on January 2 and 3, down from 16 percent in results released a day earlier. New Hampshire primary voters will go to the polls on January 10 in the second contest of the campaign to choose a Republican rival to incumbent President Barack Obama in the November general election.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who trailed Romney by a narrow margin in Iowa’s party caucuses on Tuesday, ranked fifth among New Hampshire voters with just 6 percent support. But the poll showed he had gained ground on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose support level fell to 7 percent of respondents, down from 9 a day earlier.

Elsewhere, the Reuters article indicates that Jon Huntsman — with 9 percent — remains in third place. Given his total absence in Iowa, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll overtake either of the front two, who finished well in the Hawkeye State. But it’s also perfectly plausible he’ll retain his third place position. That’s not enough to make his campaign, but it also doesn’t matter much if Huntsman manages to beat a soaring Santorum in this particular state.

That means — just as in Iowa — the race for fourth place will be more interesting than the race for the top. (It also means that Romney will again occupy the top tier with two candidates who aren’t likely to beat him out for the nomination itself.) If Santorum pushes Gingrich to fifth, that will be highly problematic for the former Speaker as he heads into South Carolina, where Rick Perry (whom Gingrich just narrowly beat in Iowa) will presumably make a concentrated push. For that matter, if Gingrich were to finish fifth in New Hampshire, he might not make it to South Carolina at all.

But — also as in Iowa — Gingrich sees himself not in a race with Santorum but in a race with Romney. Check out this New Hampshire newspaper ad Gingrich greeted Romney with this morning:

Gingrich clearly wants to do well in New Hampshire, even though he says the state he really needs to win is South Carolina. So he begins again the game of managing expectations.

That aside, New Hampshire — just as Iowa — will matter for the candidate(s) it eliminates and the momentum it builds for Romney.