On the street corner outside the gold-domed city hall, voters are snapping up specially imported copies of the latest edition of New Times magazine by the fistful from local hawkers selling their controversial wares at double the newsstand price.
After all, it's not every day that a national publication carries a full-page photograph of the city's smiling mayor on its cover - or the blaring, bold-faced come-on: "Was this man accused of raping a woman at gunpoint 12 years ago."
Mayor Vincent (Buddy) Cianci Jr. has vigorously denied the rape charges and is fighting back against the allegations, which could devastate his burgeoning political career at the height of his campaign for a second term.
"Those responsible for this will feel the full brunt of the law," said Cianci, one of the last bastions of Republican hope in this heavy Democratic state. "There will be some very, very, very substantial lawsuits."
Just over a week ago the Providence Journal-Bulletin gave the story front-page treatment in its Sunday editions. The newspaper reported New Times' allegations, carefully attribuing them to the magazine Alongside, the paper printed the mayor's denial.
Cianci says he will sue the Journal-Bulletin, New Times and several individuals involved in the story on charges of "slander, libel and defamation of character. . . and that's only part of it."
The Journal-Bulletin, a powerful statewide newspaper, began investigating the story about a year ago but decided last winter not to publish it. Managing editor Charles Hauser has declined comment on why the results of the probe were not published until after the story broke in New Times earlier this month.
Cianci, who was rewarded for the political feat of regaining city hall for the Republicans for the first time in 35 years by being chosen to second the nomination of President Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention, charged there is a "political conspiracy" behind the allegations he raped a 20-year-old telephone operator in 1966 while he was a law student at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
"It was malicious and scandalous and the very worst example of what a public officialmust face from those in the media who thrive on scurriloue rumor," he said in a prepared statement. "I have never in my life been arrested, charged, indicted or placed beforeany court anywhere in the world for the commission of any criminal act."
The New Times article, in which the alleged rape victim is never named and which claims that many of the documents concerning the case were unavailable, states Cianci paid the woman $3,000 to drop the charges.
"It's just not true," Cianni said Monday as he fumbled with the buttons on a portable tape recorder, looking for a taped interview a local television reporter had with Gerald P. Boyle, who handled the case 12 years ago when he was Milwaukee deputy district attorney.
"There was no prosecutorial merit to it," Boyle states on the recording. "It would have been unfair to prosecute; you don't ruin people's lives by going into the judicial system just for the sake of going into the judicial system. There was no evidence."
Nor is there yet evidence on what effect the rape accusations will have on Cianci's chances for reelection. Part of the reason may stem from the sparsity of copies of New Times in the state.
The main magazine distributor here, Max Silverstein and Son, refused to distribute its regular allotment of 400 copies.
"There was absolutely no pressure from the mayor," said the company's general manager, Joel Kaplan, who added. "We just didn't want to be a party to it." But, New Times publisher George A. Hirsch said Kaplan feared repercussions from the mayor's office. "Don't forget," Hirsch recalls Kaplan telling him, "he's still the mayor and we have to live with him."
New Times countered what Hirsch calls "the first time I've ever experienced the suppression of a magazine by a newsstand distributor" by mounting a campaign to bring the publication into Providence.
It finally resulted in Hirsch selling 1,400 copies wholesales to Cianci's Republican primary opponent, Robert (Skip) Chernov, a 40-year-old former rock-and-roll promoter who sent his campaign workers onto the streets to sell the magazine for twice the retail price.
Chernov said yesterday he is selling the magazine "for money and to destroy (Cianci) so I can get elected; the story is devastating and I wanted to get it out.
"Before, nobody took my campaign seriously. I was a joke candidate. Now they know it's not a joke because this thing has destroyed him. He's beat.
While Cianci's Democratic challengers refused comment, Chernov's view was disputed by political pollster and analyst Victor Profughi, a professor at Rhode Island College, who recently completed a survey indicating that reports of the rape accusation "have had no immediate impact" on voters here.
"I don't think the mayor has been hurt and I don't think he will be hurt," Profughi said. "Unless somebody picks up on it and hammers away at it - and the Providence Journal (one of those Cianci says he will name in the libel suit he plans to file before the November election) and the other media here won't do it - the issue's gonna die."
"I think it's all going to backfire," said Gary Romano, a Cianci partisan and a resident of the city's predominatly Italian Federal Hill section. "And I'll tell you one thing, the Italians are still for him."