PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ Mayoral candidate and convicted felon Vincent ''Buddy'' Cianci says he has learned from his mistakes.

It remains for voters to decide whether they forgive him.

Cianci was forced to resign as mayor in 1984 after 10 years in office when he pleaded no contest to assaulting his estranged wife's alleged lover. In Rhode Island, such a plea is equivalent to a conviction.

When he was mayor, 30 people associated with his administration were indicted, 22 convicted.

His restaurants are in financial trouble and he is behind on his taxes.

But now Cianci, an independent, is in a dead-heat mayoral race with Democrat Andrew Annaldo and independent Frederick Lippitt.

The current mayor, Joseph Paolino Jr., who took office after Cianci resigned, did not run for re-election this year. Instead he made an unsuccessful bid for governor in the Democratic primary.

Providence ''is the only place where you could see the re-emergence of someone like Buddy,'' said Victor Profughi, a political science professor at Rhode Island College.

A poll of 401 likely voters about two weeks before the Nov. 6 election showed Cianci was favored by 25 percent, Lippitt 28 percent and Annaldo 29 percent. The WJAR-TV and Alpha Research Associates Inc. poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 points.

The survey also found the 49-year-old Cianci had the least favorable rating, but 50 percent of the survey's respondents liked his experience and record.

Annaldo, 34, is a businessman with eight years on the City Council.

Lippitt, 73, a Yale-educated lawyer, has racked up a long record of public service with 22 years as a Republican state representative and two years as Gov. Edward D. DiPrete's administration director.

In the late days of the campaign, issues such as improving the city's 42 percent school drop-out rate, revitalizing neighborhoods and fighting crime increasingly have been replaced by personal attacks.

At a debate Monday, Annaldo took exception to a Lippitt commercial that compared him to an old watchdog.

Lippitt defended it, saying Annaldo should have better scrutinized city spending when he was with the Providence Board of Contract and Supply.

Cianci accused both opponents of dipping into special pensions at taxpayers' expense. Lippitt received a $50,000 state pension in 1987 that he later said he would give to charity, while Annaldo is enrolled in the pension plan of the city's largest municipal union.

''I'm getting caught in the crossfire here from the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper,'' Cianci said. ''If I believe either one of them, one is a cheat, the other is a liar, the other looks like a dog.''

Cianci has been campaigning on a theme that he ''never stopped caring about Providence.''

''Yes, I made mistakes, but at least I admit them,'' Cianci told elderly residents at a high-rise in the city's Italian section.

Annaldo has promised to relieve the city's taxpayers by making tax-exempt universities pay ''their fair share.'' That issue alone is credited with helping him win a tough four-way Democratic primary.

Lippitt is calling for a city tax on meals, concerts and sporting events.

Cianci, who backed a mid-year tax hike in 1981, opposes new taxes.

Disclosures by The Providence Journal-Bulletin show that Cianci and his businesses owe $10,000 in overdue property taxes and that he missed the deadline for filing his state and federal tax returns even after receiving a six-month extension.

Still, Cianci keeps the pollsters guessing.

''With all the negative press about Cianci, a lot of people are ashamed or embarrassed to tell their friends or family - never mind a pollster - that they are going to vote for Cianci,'' said Tony Pesaturo, president of Alpha Research. ''There's a lot of closet support for Cianci. How large it is, we have no way of knowing.''