In large part because the Obama administration is in total meltdown (and hence unpleasant for lefty pundits and talking heads on TV cable to discuss at length) and the 2014 election still is a year away, media attention is focusing early, really early, on the crop of GOP candidates expected to run for president. Naturally, Democrats are anxious to scuff up the likely contenders and make mischief by boosting the ones who will blow up the GOP — note how James Carville likes to talk up Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — so there are always lively quotes to be had about the GOP aspirants. And liberal outfits like American Bridge that search for fodder to use against Republicans are on the prowl for material to tuck away for the future.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (Win McNamee/Getty Images) Texas Gov. Rick Perry (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

If the 2016 possibles didn’t realize it already, almost any verbal slip, bad outing, legislative defeat or nasty comment about them will get picked up. So, yes, three years away from the vote, presidential contenders are being held to a very high level of scrutiny. There is no use whining about it, and if they can’t take occasional scrutiny now they will wilt under the constant glare of 2015 and 2016. Candidates would be well-advised not to play into media-propounded stereotypes.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie should holler sparingly, and never at voters.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry should be wary of brain freeze. (Smartly, he’s using self-deprecating humor to defuse things).

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had better avoid any personnel or personal issues and learn to be less snippy with the press.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) probably doesn’t want to create too many government-stopping fiascos.

Moreover, those who want to be in the mix should take some affirmative steps to put them in a position to run in 2016, if that is their desire. They’ll want to help elect Republicans in 2014. They will need, in some cases, a whole lot of foreign policy study and travel. If they have staff who are fine for lower office but not a presidential race they’ll need to start scouting for help. But most of all they need to have something to say. It sounds rudimentary, but many candidates run (the late senator Ted Kennedy famously so) with little rationale for their candidacy and no clear agenda.

Bipartisanship is not an agenda; it’s a means to an end. Gimmicks like proposed constitutional amendments should be discarded. Tired ideas with no shot at passage (Individual accounts for Social Security! A flat tax!) can be forgotten. Plain-wrap appeals to “true conservatives” and “standing on principle” ring hollow when the candidates won’t say what policies and principles he favors and what makes him a “truer” conservative than others. If they have a record of accomplishment, they should figure out how to talk about in ways that are meaningful to a national electorate. If they don’t have a record of accomplishment, they might want to do something between now and, say, 2015.

So yes, the wanna-be presidential candidates need policies, but they also need something more compelling than a list of policy positions. What is America’s role in the world? What responsibility do we, through government, have to create opportunity and ameliorate poverty? Why does the liberal welfare state not work (well, that’s pretty simple in the Obamacare era) and why do conservative policies work better? What are conservative “values”? These are not incidental matters or fluff. Rather, they are essential to defining a candidate (before others do). They enable a candidate to develop his own “brand” (since the GOP’s stinks) and have some appeal to both pragmatic and right-wing conservatives. If they spend time thinking about those issues now, the GOP aspirants’ policy positions will be more thoughtful and consistent and they will be more persuasive in telling the voters what distinguishes one candidate from another.

Ideally, a candidate will have a big vision with some specific policies arising from his or her own record of achievement. For example, George W. Bush in 2000 was the “reformer with results.” His policies included tax reform, education reform and invigorating community- and faith-based organizations to help the needy. He defined himself as the “compassionate conservative.” He could cite his record in Texas to explain what he meant and why his policies worked. Whatever Republicans think of him, Bush ran the last coherent presidential race. The nexus of vision, policies and experience helped him win and then (with his record of wartime leadership) hold the White House.

In short, candidates need to be careful and prepared in public and do a tremendous amount of legwork privately. If they don’t, they’ll take themselves out of contention before the race has even begun. And if all that sounds like too much work, then maybe they really don’t want to run after all.