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Big night in Iowa delivers final economic message from top GOP contenders (Video)

Trade with China. Government spending. Social Security.

It was economic issues that took center stage Wednesday night amid a slew of topics as the GOP’s three leading 2024 contenders made their final presentations just days before Republicans begin choosing their candidate.

The evening included the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, a head-to-head showdown on CNN between former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Former President Donald Trump skipped those debates, but nonetheless showed up on a cold night in Des Moines to participate in a simultaneous event at the Fox News town hall a few miles away.

The economy was a topic that came up repeatedly throughout the evening. The stocks were even mentioned as Trump defended his recent comments calling for an economic crash by offering a claim without evidence about recent market highs.

“I believe the stock market is going up because I’m in the lead,” he said, adding that if he were defeated, “I think the stock market would collapse.”

This is reminiscent of similar claims Trump made during the 2020 campaign about a crash following a Biden victory, which turned out to be false.

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

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

Iowans will gather across the state in just four days to caucus and begin the lengthy process of selecting GOP delegates. New Hampshire will follow soon after with its primary on January 23.

Trump has maintained a sizable lead in most polls. But there is also a recent surge of support for Haley, particularly in New Hampshire, where a recent CNN poll finds Trump’s lead there is in the single digits.

As for the other candidates, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was excluded from the debate phase due to his poor performance in the polls, but responded with a campaign ad to protest against his exclusion. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suspended his campaign hours before the candidates took the stage.

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

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

China, China, China

During the CNN debate between DeSantis and Haley, the world’s second-largest economy was mentioned by both candidates within the first five minutes. Then China appeared again and again.

Moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash also weighed in on how they would handle business matters.

“I felt very strongly about China in terms of trade, and the one thing we will do is not wait for China to pull the rug out from under Iowans,” Haley said of the how she would approach the issue.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (left) and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speak during the fifth debate of the Republican presidential primary 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 (left) and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speak during the fifth debate of the Republican presidential primary 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 UN Ambassador Nikki Haley faced off in the fifth debate of the Republican presidential primary at Drake University in Des Moines on January 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.

His position contrasted with that of DeSantis and Trump. For his part, Florida’s governor touted a plan to cut off access to China and “decouple our economy, especially those things that are important to our national survival.”

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

During his town hall, Trump brought up China, but 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 governments foreigners like China while he was president.

Trump defended the receipts, saying it was a small amount of money and that “I was performing services for this…I’m not getting $8 million for doing nothing.”

The continued anti-China focus on the campaign trail comes after weeks where seemingly every positive comment made about China by a candidate has become a liability in 2024.

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

“Tricky Nikki claims she’s tough on China, but as governor she promised to do ‘whatever it takes,'” was the refrain in one such ad funded by a super PAC supporting DeSantis.

Public debt and the opportunity to “inject money into this country”

Wednesday night’s exchanges also provided insight into how the candidates might approach government spending issues, including the debate currently gripping Washington.

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

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

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

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

But she also promised a balanced budget without providing details about the deep cuts such a measure would entail and repeatedly criticized DeSantis for a vote he secured in Congress that raised the debt ceiling.

The problem for Haley is DeSantis’ past support for the 2018 bipartisan budget law that overwhelmingly passed (and was signed by then-President Trump) to avoid the potentially calamitous fight over the budget cap. debt for that year.

Learn more: How a government shutdown would impact your money: student loans, social security, investments, etc.

One of the points of agreement among the three candidates was the commitment that no tax increases would be on the table. DeSantis and Haley have often mocked each other’s backgrounds on the issue.

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

Social Security

Another economic subject which benefited from significant airtime was that of social security, with discussions which made it possible to further highlight the different approaches to the issue.

Haley has been the most hyped candidate given her propensity to discuss Social Security reform in the coming years for young Americans – a contrast to her primary opponents.

That didn’t change Wednesday, with the candidate bluntly saying that Americans currently in their 20s “should plan to raise their retirement age, yes. We’re going to change it to more closely reflect what the expectation of retirement should be.” life”.

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

The public watches 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 pushed back against the idea, emphasizing that life expectancy has been declining in recent years and pledging with reservations to “never raise the retirement age in the face of declining life expectancy.”

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

Trump also brought up Social Security at his competing event, but, as he often does, he mainly focused on using the issue as a political weapon – once again claiming that DeSantis and Haley would propose cuts .

Asset often claims that he alone “will always protect Social Security and Medicare,” but the former president avoided specifying exactly what that would look like.

A recent government report found that Social Security’s main trust fund is strained and only has enough funds to continue paying 100% of benefits through 2034.

Ben Werschkul is Yahoo Finance’s Washington correspondent.

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