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A big night in Iowa offers a closing economic message from top GOP candidates (video)

Trade with China. Government expenditure. Social Security.

These were the economic issues that took center stage amid a range of topics Wednesday night as the three major 2024 Republican candidates made their final pitches just days before Republicans began choosing their nominees.

The evening saw the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, a one-on-one showdown on CNN between former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Former President Donald Trump skipped that procedure but still showed up on a cold night in Des Moines to appear at a simultaneous Fox News town hall event just a few miles away.

Economics was a topic that kept coming back throughout the evening. Stocks even earned a mention when Trump defended his recent comments wishing for an economic crash by making an evidence-free claim about recent market highs.

“I believe the stock market is going up because I’m ahead,” he said, adding a prediction that if he is defeated, “I think the stock market would crash.”

It was reminiscent of similar claims Trump made during the 2020 campaign about a crash following a Biden victory, which turned out to be untrue.

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, arrives for a Fox News Channel town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, arrives for a Fox News Channel town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Former President Donald Trump arrives for a Fox News Channel town hall in Des Moines on Jan. 10 with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Iowans will gather across the state in just four days to organize and kick off the Republican Party’s long selection process for the Republican Party. New Hampshire will follow shortly after with its primaries on January 23.

Trump has maintained a commanding lead in most polls. But there has also been a recent wave of support for Haley, especially in New Hampshire, where a recent CNN poll showed Trump’s lead there in the single digits.

As for the other candidates, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was excluded from the debate stage due to his poor election results agreed to a campaign ad to protest his exclusion. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suspended his campaign just hours before the candidates took the stage.

A wide range of other issues — from immigration to foreign policy to abortion and accusations of lying — were also discussed at length Wednesday night.

Here’s a closer look at some of the key economic themes that emerged:

China, China, China

During the CNN debate between DeSantis and Haley, the world’s second-largest economy got a mention of both candidates within the first five minutes. Then China came up again and again.

There was also some insight into policy, with the candidates being pressed by moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash on how they would handle trade issues.

“I was very committed to China on trade, and all we’re going to do is not wait for China to pull the rug out from under Iowans,” Haley said of how she would address the issue.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (L) and former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speak during the fifth Republican presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10, 2024. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (L) and former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speak during the fifth Republican presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10, 2024. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley argued during the fifth Republican presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines on Jan. 10. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images) (JIM WATSON via Getty Images)

Without commenting on how she would approach Trump-era tariffs, Haley said she would focus her energy on trade deals with allies like India, Japan and Israel.

“When I am president, we will sell and export everything made in Iowa to those who are our friends, not our enemies,” she said.

Her position stood in contrast to both DeSantis and Trump. For his part, Florida’s governor touted a plan to cut off China and “decouple our economy, especially those that are important to our national survival.”

The approach mirrored Trump’s own plan, with the former president promising a new round of trade wars when he returns to office, including new global tariffs and a four-year effort to “phase out all Chinese imports of essential goods.” .

At his town hall, Trump brought up China, but he was also forced to defend his record after a recent report from House Democrats found that Trump’s companies profited more than $8 million from foreign investments during his presidency governments such as China.

Trump defended the influx, saying it was a small amount and “that’s what I did services for… I’m not going to get $8 million if I don’t do anything.”

The continued anti-China focus from the campaign trail comes after weeks in which seemingly every positive comment about China by any candidate in 2024 has become an issue.

Most notably, allies of both Haley and DeSantis have recently bought television time for ads accusing the other of being too open to investment from China in their states.

“Tricky Nikki pretends to be tough on China, but as governor she promised to do ‘whatever it takes,’” was the refrain of one such ad, funded by a DeSantis-backed super PAC.

National debt and whether this country should be ‘injected with money’

Wednesday night’s back-and-forth also offered some insight into how the candidates might approach government spending issues, including the debate currently occupying Washington.

At his town hall, Trump defended the $8 trillion increase in debt seen during his time in office. He ignored how his 2017 tax cuts contributed greatly to the red ink and focused on COVID-era programs, saying, “That was a very good investment.”

“If I hadn’t injected this country with money, you would have had a depression,” he added.

Both DeSantis and Haley attacked Trump for those debt increases, with Haley saying she would take a more critical stance as president.

We “need an accountant in the White House,” she said, nodding to her accounting and finance degree from Clemson University in the 1990s.

But she also promised a balanced budget without detailing the steep cuts such a move would entail, and repeatedly criticized DeSantis for a vote he took in Congress to raise the debt limit.

For Haley, at issue is DeSantis’ past support for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which passed overwhelmingly (and was signed by then-President Trump) to blunt that year’s potentially economically disastrous debt ceiling fight turn.

Read more: How a government shutdown would affect your money: student loans, Social Security, investments and more

One point of agreement among all three candidates was the promise that no tax increases would be on the table. DeSantis and Haley often joked about each other’s past track record in this area.

“I want people to pay less taxes,” DeSantis said.

Social Security

Another economic issue that received significant attention was social security, with exchanges serving to further highlight different approaches to the issue.

Haley is the candidate most in the spotlight, given her propensity to discuss welfare reform for younger Americans in the coming years — a contrast to her main opponents.

That didn’t change on Wednesday, when the candidate bluntly said that Americans currently in their 20s should “plan for their retirement age to be raised, yes.” We are going to change this to reflect more of what life expectancy should be.”

DES MOINES, IOWA - JANUARY 10: The crowd watches during the debate between Republican presidential candidates Florida Gov.  Ron DeSantis and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley during the CNN Republican Presidential Primary Debate at Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University on January 10, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa.  DeSantis and Haley both qualified for this final debate before the Iowa caucuses, while former President Donald Trump declined to participate and instead held a simultaneous town hall event live on FOX News.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)DES MOINES, IOWA - JANUARY 10: The crowd watches during the debate between Republican presidential candidates Florida Gov.  Ron DeSantis and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley during the CNN Republican Presidential Primary Debate at Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University on January 10, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa.  DeSantis and Haley both qualified for this final debate before the Iowa caucuses, while former President Donald Trump declined to participate and instead held a simultaneous town hall event live on FOX News.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The audience watches during the debate between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley at Drake University on January 10. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images)

DeSantis walked back that idea, noting that life expectancy has declined in recent years and making a qualified pledge to “never raise the retirement age in light of declining life expectancy.”

Read more: How to find out your Social Security COLA increase for 2024

Trump also brought up Social Security during his competing event, but as he often does, he focused mainly on using the issue as a political weapon — again saying that both DeSantis and Haley would offer cuts.

Trump often claims that he will only “always protect Social Security and Medicare,” but the former president has avoided describing exactly what that would look like.

A recent government report shows that Social Security’s main trust fund is under pressure and only has the resources to continue paying 100% of benefits until 2034.

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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