AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And you can listen to tonight's debate live on many NPR stations. We'll also have analysis and fact checking at NPR.org. Now, our next story looks not at the differences between the candidates, which we're sure to hear about tonight, but at a similarity. President Obama and Mitt Romney share something that goes to the core of this campaign. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, it comes up in every stump speech they give.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The central issue in this campaign is the economy and each candidate's plan to fix it. Barak Obama and Mitt Romney both have roadmaps and if you listen to those prescriptions side by side, they sound remarkably alike, starting with a basic number.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm putting forward a practical five-point plan to create jobs.
MITT ROMNEY: Now, my plan, as you've heard, has five key steps.
OBAMA: Practical, specific five-point plan.
ROMNEY: I have five things I'm going to do.
SHAPIRO: Romney boiled down his five-point plan from a much longer proposal that he unveiled in Nevada a year ago.
ROMNEY: This is not just one silver bullet. There's not just one idea in here. There are 59 of them.
SHAPIRO: That seemed a bit unwieldy. Herman Cain gave Romney some flak for the proposal during a primary debate in New Hampshire.
HERMAN CAIN: Can you name all 59 points in your 160-page plan?
SHAPIRO: By the general election, 59 shrank down to five. The Obama campaign unveiled the president's five-point plan later at his party's convention. And by the time he hit the campaign trail in Florida the following weekend, the five-point plan was rolling with him on the bus tour.
OBAMA: I'm asking you to rally not around me, but rally around a set of goals for our country in manufacturing and education and energy, national security, reducing the deficit.
MARY KATE CARY: The rule amongst speechwriters is you always use an odd number.
SHAPIRO: Mary Kate Cary was a speechwriter for the first President Bush. She says a three-point plan can be good for the small stuff.
CARY: You'd see three for, like, you know, three ways I'm going to increase community service in the United States, something like that. Five would be better for something big like the economy.
SHAPIRO: Dig into the substance of the candidates' five-point plans and the similarities get really uncanny. Here's goal number one.
OBAMA: First, I want to export more products and outsource fewer jobs.
ROMNEY: Where other nations are now competing, I want to make sure our goods can go throughout the world.
SHAPIRO: Both men want to sell more American products overseas. Next on the list...
ROMNEY: I'm going to take advantage of our energy resources and get us energy independent.
OBAMA: Second part of the plan is to control more of our own energy.
SHAPIRO: And the similarities don't stop there. Here's number three.
ROMNEY: Number three, I'm going to make sure we have the kind of training programs that give people the skills they need for the jobs of today.
OBAMA: Number three, I want to give more Americans the chance to get the skills that they need to compete.
SHAPIRO: Remember, these are the stump speeches that the candidates give nearly every day. The five things that are, as Romney puts it...
ROMNEY: Dramatically different than the path of status quo represented by this president.
SHAPIRO: Each candidate says this is what distinguishes him from his opponent. But so far, the five-points line up three for three. Let's see what's behind door number four.
ROMNEY: Fourth, we have got to cut the deficit.
OBAMA: Number four, I want to reduce the deficit without sticking it to the middle class.
SHAPIRO: For both candidates, number four is shrinking the deficit. On number five, they finally diverge. Romney talks about small businesses and the president talks about national security. Still, alignment on four out of five points is kind of amazing, says former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol.
JEFF SHESOL: One of the things that's striking in our historical moment is the degree of consensus in this country about the big issues. Everybody wants, it seems, to protect the middle class. Everybody wants to find a path to energy independence. Everybody wants to reduce the deficit. But the real battle is going to be waged over the question of how we get there.
SHAPIRO: And indeed, there are profound differences beneath the bullet points. Take energy independence. Both men want to stop relying on Mideast oil, but Romney wants the Environmental Protection Agency to stop meddling in U.S. coal mines.
ROMNEY: And I am going to bring that pipeline in from Canada so we can get their oil.
SHAPIRO: On energy independence, President Obama talks about fuel efficiency and green energy.
OBAMA: We've doubled the amount of renewable energy that we generate from things like wind and solar.
SHAPIRO: And the disagreements extend into the rest of the five-points as well. Tonight in Denver, those disagreements over how to solve the nation's problems will play out on the debate stage. But at least the candidates agree on what the most pressing problems are. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.