I ran into Angela "Bay" Buchanan recently at a reception for Republican members of Congress, a gathering filled with passionate conservatives, many of whom were preoccupied with the ferocious battle over a Bush judicial nominee.

Buchanan had something else on her mind: the demonization of single mothers. To be blunt, she said at the buffet table, conservatives "have the wrong message."

Huh? I'd known her only in the context of presidential politics, as chairman of her brother Pat's three campaigns. Lobbing grenades, cutting deals, she was Pat's alternate voice -- and not a quiet voice. In 1996, she threatened to mobilize abortion opponents for a fight at the Republican National Convention if the party watered down the platform's anti-abortion plank. In 1992, during the war of words over whether her brother deserved a prime-time speaking slot at the GOP convention, she referred to Republican National Committee Chairman Rich Bond as "Little Richard."

That's the Bay Buchanan I knew. But we're all multidimensional, living complex lives too often made simple by the velocity of modern social discourse. Bay Buchanan also has three sons -- ages 20, 18 and 15 -- and she's raised them mostly by herself. She and the boys' father split in 1987, when she was three months pregnant with their youngest.

Sixteen years of single motherhood.

"There is immediately a greater burden of responsibility," she says, recalling that initial period of adjustment when she was alone, rearing three small children. "It's all on your shoulders. You can't slip."

There are few of the breaks married women get, as in: Let me sleep, you get up with the kids. Or: You stay home, I'm going out with the girls. "You're full-time when you're a single parent," Buchanan says. "The fun part is you become close to your kids. You have to deal with them . . . You develop a very unique relationship with your children."

Buchanan's experience brought her closer to single mothers everywhere. Didn't matter if they were from the suburbs or the inner city, white, black, rich, on welfare, divorced or never married. She related. "If I meet a single mom, I don't care what race, what nationality, there is a feeling we share: 'You and I know something about life that others don't know.' "

These are the sentiments of a self-described "traditional conservative" who has "always understood the importance of family as the greatest source of strength in society" and who believes "there's no question that children lose out when parents divorce."

We're talking about the loyal former Reagan campaign treasurer who was appointed treasurer of the United States in 1981. In case anybody's forgotten, the man who appointed her, Ronald "Welfare Queen" Reagan, was no champion of single moms.

What disturbs Buchanan about many of her fellow conservatives is that they are not, in her view, sensitive. For her, empathy came with the experience of single motherhood. Stories she once brushed past -- single mom struggles to raise children in drug-plagued neighborhood -- now bring her to tears. "Now, it's me. I'm in the story," she says. "Except her job is harder."

Conservatives, she adds, need to get this.

"When you look at the millions and millions of single moms," she says, "we should have something for them to hold on to. There should be a message that is encouraging to the single mom. Show them some role models."

Instead, she says, there is a steady drumbeat of negativity from her ranks -- statistics and studies and dire warnings about how much more likely the children of single parents are to mess up in school, get hooked on drugs, grow up to divorce their spouses.

"The message from Democrats is very encouraging to single parents," says Buchanan. "It's something very natural for them. Not conservative Republicans. You get the message, 'You already failed; it's too late.' "

In 1992, as Buchanan was just getting comfortable with single motherhood, Dan Quayle ignited a firestorm with a speech that attacked the fictional TV anchorwoman Murphy Brown for "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.' " The term "traditional family values" became a conservative Republican mantra.

Buchanan, now 54, went on raising her children alone. Their father, California attorney William Jackson, stayed connected to them until he died four years ago. The boys are turning out just fine. Billy, 20, is on a Mormon mission in Texas. Tommy, 18, a senior at Gonzaga High School, is a lifeguard and a basketball coach to middle-schoolers. Stuart, 15, a Gonzaga sophomore, is writing a fantasy book.

Buchanan, when she's not debating liberal Democratic strategist Donna Brazile on CNN's "Inside Politics," is writing a book, too -- about keeping it together as a single mother.

No demonization.

Kevin Merida's e-mail address is meridak@washpost.com.