David and Shayna Englin are all too familiar with the power of bloggers. Courting these off-the-cuff Internet columnists helped David Englin, a relative unknown, win a Democratic primary for a Northern Virginia House seat last month.
But after the race, the Englins quickly discovered another side of blogs.
First came this posting on the site www.virginia2005.blogspot.com: "David isn't the only Englin with designs on public office. . . . There's going to be an Englin running for Congress in 2006, but not the one you think. I know for a fact that Shayna has already been getting pledges for money for her race."
Then a slightly more disturbing note appeared on the same Web site: "Driving home tonight, guess what I saw on the Englins' front lawn??? Democrat Greg Werkheiser. I walked back to try to listen into the conversation but couldn't hear much without being obvious."
Both were anonymous postings on a Web site run by the group of bloggers known as Not Larry Sabato. The pseudonym is a dig at the frequency with which Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, appears in mainstream media.
Shayna Englin, 31, who lives in Alexandria, said she has no plans to run for office, especially against Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). She added she was "chilled" to learn that people were spying on her home and posting what they saw on the Internet.
"It's creepy. That somebody would spread rumors on Jim Moran's seat, that's not all that surprising. The fact that somebody is keeping tabs on who we have over to dinner, that's more problematic," she said. "The whole thing about being anonymous is that there's no accountability. They can literally post anything."
Such is the new and emerging realm of Internet blogs. Since the 2005 Virginia election cycle kicked off, the number of blogs talking about Virginia politics has swelled to at least 20. Many are run anonymously, allowing people to express their views freely -- and giving them an easy way to spread rumors and half-truths.
Organizers of the Not Larry Sabato blog contend that postings about candidates are fair, especially because they are public figures. Speaking only on condition of anonymity, one of them said the blog criticizes politicians on both sides of the aisle.
"We are equal opportunity bashers here," the Not Larry Sabato blogger said in a phone interview. The group, he added, is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans from across the state. "There's no question it's completely thumbing our nose at the establishment. You can imagine how much fun it is when [state delegates] have a closed meeting . . . and all of a sudden, the secret meeting . . . is now out on the Internet."
The blogger said he did not know whether the postings about Shayna Englin, which were e-mailed to the site anonymously, were true. The group did not call her for a response. The goal is to rush information into the public domain. Otherwise, he said, "it would give her a chance to delay or deny that rumor."
"We don't have the same standards as [the mainstream media]," he said. "If someone makes a defamatory statement, that has nothing to do with us. We are not responsible for what other people are saying on our blog. It's kind of like a hotel pool. There's no lifeguard. You are responsible for yourself."
On one hand, political analysts say, anonymous blogs draw people into the political process. But they can be influenced by savvy politicians.
"It's gossip central, and beyond that it's an opportunity for campaign operatives to manipulate yet another piece of the system," said the real Larry Sabato. "The positive side is that more people may be engaged and interested. The downside is that more of what they know may be inaccurate."
Noting that he is not part of the Not Larry Sabato group, Sabato said he laughed when he heard that he had inspired the name of a blog and even logged on to post a guest column. "It's far better they should be doing this than watching the wasteland of prime-time TV or doing something else that has no civic value," he said.
The blogs are too new to have a major impact on the Nov. 8 election, Sabato and some politicians agreed. Most draw only a few thousand readers a day. But in a primary, where voter turnout is low and "political junkies" who frequent such Web sites are more likely to vote, the blogs might have a real effect, they said.
Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), for one, said he is not a fan of anonymous blogs. He has been the target of a new blogger who adopted the name "Not Brian Moran."
"Anyone who does it anonymously is being cowardly, in my opinion," he said. Blogs, he added, "don't seem to be used constructively at this point. It just seems to be wild potshots at people."
Chad Dotson, 31, a commonwealth's attorney from Wise County, is trying to change that. He started his blog, "Commonwealth Conservative," under the pseudonym John Behan last year. Now Dotson is more open about his identity.
Dotson said he wants his site, www.vaconservative.com, to be less about political sniping than about open and honest discussions on state policy or even personal matters. He said he frequently gets e-mails from candidates and other politicians. One delegate even e-mailed him from the floor of the General Assembly.
But he also acknowledged that it can be hard to resist posting rumors.
"We are a tiny readership. But I think there's a lot of room for growth," Dotson said. "Too often, a political blogger gets involved in political bickering. But we're discussing means of doing something that's more conducive to discussion -- and we're hoping to influence Virginia bloggers to go in that direction."