Mitt Romney last night.(Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Mitt Romney won the second of the two Republican primary contests so far. (In his victory speech, he chastised President Obama for “criticizing our friends like Israel.”) He took the New Hampshire primary by a decisive margin, earning nearly 40 percent of the vote out of a field containing five legitimate candidates. And this isn’t solely a case of a former Massachusetts governor winning in his own backyard: he also invested ample time and money in last week’s Iowa caucuses, and in 2008 failed to win this primary. His win is the loudest yet sign that the GOP race has gone merely from his to lose to his to spectacularly screw-up. He is the crystal-clear frontrunner to be the 2012 Republican nominee for president.

The biggest surprise of the night, to me, is that Jon Huntsman, the moderate former governor of Utah and (Obama) ambassador to China, came in a distinct third place with 17 percent and yet neglected to drop out. He had staked everything on this contest, and his refusal to admit total defeat in the face of a trouncing by Romney and a significant loss to runner-up Ron Paul to my mind indicates either hubris or the sense that the coming South Carolina and Florida primaries may prove less hospitable to Romney. This is plausible: South Carolina is where the big money and the dirty tricks tend to come out (and with the Sheldon Adelson-funded pro-Newt Gingrich Super PAC’s $3.4 million ad buy, that seems to be the case this year); and the social conservatives in those states may find a Mormon less palatable than those in Iowa and New Hampshire. Of course, that doesn’t do Huntsman any good, but it may enable an anti-Romney out of Paul, Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry to yet emerge (Gingrich and Santorum finished an interchangeable fourth and fifth yesterday; Perry, who did not campaign in the Granite State, got less than 1 percent of its vote).

Yes, Ron Paul. He came in second with 23 percent. He’s not going to win: that ship sailed when he failed to win Iowa. But he is going to have the desire, the money, and the national organization to stick around until the end, which means he is going to do it, a thorn in the side of Romney both through the rest of the contests and, perhaps, at the convention in August, where he will have accumulated at least a few delegates. Among Jewish voters, he has basically become the avenue through which the other candidates can be attacked: the National Jewish Democratic Council’s blast last night noted that Romney said he would support Paul over Obama (never mind the NJDC’s own support for a pledge not to make Israel a partisan issue … ). Paul’s showing last night was a very firm second place, closer to fifth place than to first, but the GOP establishment, and perhaps especially the GOP Jewish establishment, would have wished it even lower.

But still. A good night for Romney and a good night for the Republican establishment.

Oh and hey, Fred Karger, neck-and-neck with onetime promising candidate Michele Bachmann! Well done, sir.

Romney Wins GOP Primary in New Hampshire [NYT]
Related: Elder Statesman [Tablet Magazine]