That's quite a racy cover on February's GQ magazine. A nearly naked Dennis Rodman, the tattoo aficionado and cross-dressing NBA forward, stands behind nearly naked supermodel Rebecca Romijn and appears to be grabbing her breasts.

But unless you subscribe to GQ, you won't see that image. Newsstand copies of the same issue are dressed very differently -- with a cover shot of Romijn in a bikini, posed almost chastely in front of Rodman.

The now-you-see-it, now-you-don't covers are GQ's way of navigating the rocky channels of modern magazine distribution. Warned that many retailers will no longer tolerate excessive skin in the checkout line, the magazine published "split-run" covers for the current issue. Some 300,000 copies, all bound for public display, carry the milder Rodman-Romijn cover; another 425,000 subscribers will be able to view the "other" Rodman in the privacy of their homes.

"We're very sensitive to the needs of our {newsstand} distributors and their customers," said GQ Editor Art Cooper yesterday. "We don't want customers to object to what they see in stores. . . . I felt the {hands-and-breasts} cover might be considered too racy."

Split-run covers appear infrequently, and tend to be used when a magazine tries to tailor its featured subject to a specific region. (GQ itself ran split covers two years ago, with Miami Dolphins football coach Jimmy Johnson appearing on copies distributed in the South and former quarterback Joe Montana out front everywhere else.)

But splitting a cover to avoid public offense -- rather than courting controversy -- is rarer still. After all, magazines and tabloid papers have long used sexy photos and saucy headlines to grab the attention of supermarket shoppers and newsstand browsers who can face dozens of choices.

Vanity Fair, for example, generated reams of publicity for two controversial covers -- its photo of a naked and hugely pregnant Demi Moore in 1991 and its follow-up a year later, when Moore appeared frontally nude, save for body paint that gave the illusion she was wearing a suit. Both of those editions were pulled off the racks by supermarket chains that had received complaints from customers.

Such gripes seem to have made retailers more sensitive about what is acceptable. "We're a family-oriented business and we don't want to sell any product that is going to offend people," said Barry Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food Inc., the Washington-area supermarket chain. "We've made our suppliers aware of that, too."

In the past, Giant has pulled issues of Cosmopolitan magazine, which usually feature cleavage-baring models and cover lines that promote articles about sexual positions and orgasms. Giant and Safeway Stores Inc. also yanked the Vanity Fair issues with Moore.

Many retailers, including Giant and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., recently refused to stock copies of the tabloid Globe newspaper that carried surreptitiously obtained autopsy photos of JonBenet Ramsey, the slain 6-year-old beauty queen.

Wal-Mart spokesman Dale Ingram said his company's policy about magazine displays is an extension of its policy of not carrying recorded music with vulgar lyrics. "We appreciate that GQ . . . understands that children and other people will see the cover of their magazine and may be offended by it," said Ingram. "We don't quibble with the rights of any artist to say and write and record whatever they'd like, but we hope they respect our right not to sell it."

GQ's Cooper said he certainly does. "There are fewer and fewer {distributors} out there that are increasingly powerful . . . and we've got to accommodate them," he said. "I don't think they're trying to subvert the First Amendment. They are just responding to the perceived desires of their customers."

The too-hot-for-newsstands edition of GQ is actually a parody of sorts of another controversial cover, Rolling Stone's 1993 shot of singer Janet Jackson. In that cover, Jackson's bare breasts are covered by her boyfriend's disembodied hands.

In the GQ version, Rodman only appears to be holding Romijn's breasts, on which a man's fingers have been painted. The basketball star's hands are actually raised in a no-harm, no-foul gesture, a physical pun that plays off the cover line "Dennis Rodman tries to get a grip on life, fame and career, but not on Rebecca Romijn." CAPTION: Warned that retailers are cracking down on excess skin at the checkout line, GQ produced one cover, left, for public display, and one for subscribers only.